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Science is a special way of learning about our world. Like detectives who use clues to figure out what happened in the past, scientists also use clues, or observations, to discover how the world works. And, just like detectives, scientists have to be very careful to understand what the clues are trying to tell.
Scientists use many tools to help them, including special instruments to collect information, like thermometers and satellites. They also use really powerful calculating machines called supercomputers to figure out what those observations mean.
The more observations we have, and the more powerful our supercomputers, the more discoveries we can make. And sometimes, new clues show us that we were on the wrong track, and that we have a lot more research to do before we understand the real story!
All weather begins with our Sun, which warms the Earth different amounts in different places. As Earth’s surface warms, it also warms the air above it. Warm air goes up, leaving a space for cooler air to fill in. These movements of air also transport moisture through the atmosphere to cause what we know as weather.
Warm air rises, and then expands and cools. If it is moist air, the water vapor in the air can condense and form clouds. In the right conditions, clouds can grow very big and produce rain or hail and lightning. Some of the tallest ones can grow up to 60,000 feet. That’s more than 11 miles high!
When the winds blow in certain ways, air inside a single thunderstorm can start to rotate really fast, forming a vortex. If the vortex touches the ground, it makes a tornado. A hurricane happens when a group of thunderstorms form over warm ocean water, and begin to rotate together faster and faster. Hurricanes are the biggest weather phenomenon—up to 300 miles wide. Astronauts can see them from space!
Our planet is made up of many different parts. Think about how your body works: you have eyes that see, hands that draw and pick things up, skin that tells you if it is warm or cold, and so on. All of these parts working together make up who you are.
Earth is a lot like your body. It has air and oceans and trees and animals and snow and volcanoes, and all of those things together make up the Earth system. And just like your body’s parts work together, Earth’s parts all interact with each other too.
Scientists work to discover how these parts function, on their own and also as parts of the bigger system. There is so much to learn and discover that scientists often get help from supercomputers to understand how it all works.
Field trips are wonderful opportunities to expand your learning outside of the classroom. At NCAR and the NWSC, our expertise is the Earth System and its atmosphere, and even more specifically, weather and climate. Our scientists and staff are committed to advancing the scientific body of knowledge in these areas, and providing research, tools and technology that allow us to accomplish this mission and be of service to society.
Odds are you have already begun or are about to begin studying weather, climate or another topic within the Earth sciences. If not, a trip to the NWSC will immerse you into such topics.
Ask your teacher about scheduling a visit to the NWSC.
The NWSC is the result of a partnership between University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the State of Wyoming, the University of Wyoming, Cheyenne LEADS, Wyoming Business Council, Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power Company. The NWSC is operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation.
Q: Yellowstone, the NWSC’s first supercomputer, performs one and a half quadrillion calculations per second. How long would it take you to count to that number?
A: If you counted one number per second, it would take you well over 47 million years.