Satellite measurements of the Earth’s microwave emissions are a crucial element in the development of an accurate system for long-term monitoring of atmospheric temperature. Satellites provide global coverage at much higher densities than attainable with in situ observations. In situ observations also suffer from non-uniform temporal coverage and undocumented changes in the instrumentation used that can lead to local biases and increased uncertainty.

Microwave Temperature Sounding

Satellites can measure the temperature of the atmosphere by evaluating thermal emission from gases in the atmosphere.  Molecular Oxygen has a complex of relatively strong absorption lines near 60 GHz.  By choosing the different measurement frequencies, and thus different values of absorptivity, the emission from different layers of the atmosphere can be measured.  RSS studies the measurements made by 3 series of satellite-borne microwave sounders in order to construct long-term, climate-quality atmospheric temperature datasets for use by the scientific community.  The 3 instruments are listed below

Microwave Sounding Unit (MSU)

The Microwave Sounding Units (MSU) operating on NOAA polar-orbiting satellite platforms were the principal sources of satellite temperature profiles from late 1978 to the early 2000's. The MSUs were cross-track scanners that made measurements of microwave radiance in four channels ranging from 50.3 to 57.95 GHz on the lower shoulder of the Oxygen absorption band. These four channels measured the atmospheric temperature in four thick layers spanning the surface through the stratosphere. The were 9 MSUs in total.  The last MSU instrument, NOAA-14, ceased reliable operation in 2005.

Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (AMSU)

A series of follow-on instruments, the Advanced Microwave Sounding Units (AMSUs), began operation in 1998. The AMSU instruments are composed of 2 sub units, AMSU-A and AMSU-B.  AMSU-B is a humidity sounder (not discussed further), and AMSU-A is a 15-channel temperature sounder similar to MSU.  Of the 15 channels, 11 (Channels 4 through 14) are located in the 60 GHz absorption complex and thus are most closely related to atmospheric temepratures at various heights above the surface.  The increased number of channels relative to MSU means that AMSU-A samples the temperature of the atmosphere in a larger number of layers. The AMSU measurement footprints are also smaller than those for MSU, leading to higher spatial resolution.  3 AMSU channels (Channels 5,7,and 9) are closely matched to MSU channels 2,3 and 4.  By using these channels,we have extended our climate-quality dataset to the present.

In addition, we have completed a preliminary analysis of AMSU channels 10-14, which measure temperatures higher in the stratosphere than the highest MSU channel (channel 4). These datasets began in mid 1998 with the launch of the first AMSU on the NOAA-15 satellite. These datasets, now 14 years long, are beginning to be long enough to become interesting for investigating long-term changes in the mid and upper stratosphere.

So far, there are 8 AMSU instruments, 5 on NOAA platforms (NOAA-15 through NOAA-19), 2 on EUMETSAT platforms (Metop-A and Metop-B), and one on NASA AQUA satellite.

Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS)

In the future, the AMSU instruments will be phased out, and replaced with the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS). The first ATMS was launched October 28, 2011. Measurements made by the ATMS are not yet used in our products. We are working to cross-calibrate ATMS with AMSU so that ATMS measurements can be included in future products.

All microwave sounding instruments were developed for day-to-day operational weather forecasting use and therefore are typically not calibrated to the precision that is needed for climate studies. A climate quality dataset can be extracted from MSU and AMSU measurements only by careful intercalibration of the data from the MSU, AMSU and ATMS instruments, including the removal of spurious signals that are not due to changing atmospheric temperatures.

Period of Operation for MSU and AMSU

Figure 1 below shows an example plot of which satellite contributes valid data for each month.  This plot is for TLS, which uses MSU channel 4 and AMSU channel 9.  The analogous plots for other products differ slightly due to small differences in instrument history.  For example, MSU channel 2 on the NOAA-09 satellite failed earlier than for MSU channel 4 on the same satellite, so the corresponding plot for TMT and TLT would be different than what is shown here.
Figure. 1  Plot of which satellites are used for each month to construct the MSU/AMSU TLS dataset.


Microwave Sounding Data Products from RSS

We currently provide a number of data products constructed by merging the MSU and AMSU Data from different satellites together.   These include

  • 3 single-channel MSU/AMSU datasets (TMT, TTS, and TLS) that extend back to late 1978
  • 5 single channel AMSU-only stratospheric datasets (C10, C11, C12, C13, and C14) that begin in mid 1998.  These datasets are fairly early in their development process and should be considered preliminary (C10-C12) or experimental (C13 and C14). 
  • TLT is a more complex dataset constructed by calculating a weighted difference between measurements made at different Earth incidence angles to extrapolate MSU channel 2 and AMSU channel 5 measurements lower in the atmosphere.
  • 2 multi-channel datasets, TTT and C25, that are constructed from weighted combinations of the single channel datasets. Since C25 is constructed from AMSU Channels C10-C13, it should be considered preliminary.

Each of these products is discussed in more detail in the Upper Air Temperature Measurements page.


Mears, C. A. and F. J. Wentz, (2017) A satellite-derived lower tropospheric atmospheric temperature dataset using an optimized adjustment for diurnal effects , Journal of Climate, 30(19), 7695-7718, doi: 10.1175/jcli-d-16-0768.1.

Mears, C. A. and F. J. Wentz, (2016) Sensitivity of satellite-derived tropospheric temperature trends to the diurnal cycle adjustment, Journal of Climate, 29(10), 3629-3646, doi: DOI: 10.1175/JCLI-D-15-0744.1.

Mears, C. A., F. J. Wentz and P. W. Thorne, (2012) Assessing the Value of Microwave Sounding Unit-Radiosonde Comparisons in Ascertaining Errors in Climate Data Records of Tropospheric Temperatures, J. Geophys. Res., 117(D19), D19103,  doi:10.1029/2012JD017710.

Mears, C. A., F. J. Wentz, P. Thorne and D. Bernie, (2011) Assessing Uncertainty in Estimates of Atmospheric Temperature Changes From MSU and AMSU Using a Monte-Carlo Estimation Technique, J. Geophys. Res., 116, D08112, doi:10.1029/2010JD014954.

Mears, C. A. and F. J. Wentz, (2009) Construction of the RSS V3.2 Lower Tropospheric Dataset From the MSU and AMSU Microwave Sounders, Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, 26, 1493-1509.

Mears, C. A. and F. J. Wentz, (2009) Construction of the Remote Sensing Systems V3.2 Atmospheric Temperature Records From the MSU and AMSU Microwave Sounders, Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, 26, 1040-1056.

Mears, C. A. and F. J. Wentz, (2005) The Effect of Drifting Measurement Time on Satellite-Derived Lower Tropospheric Temperature, Science, 309, 1548-1551.

Mears, C. A., M. C. Schabel and F. J. Wentz, (2003) A Reanalysis of the MSU Channel 2 Tropospheric Temperature Record, Journal of Climate, 16(22), 3650-3664.

Prabhakara, C., R. Iacovazzi Jr, J.-M. Yoo, G. Dalu. "Global warming: Estimation from satellite observations" Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 27(21), 3517-3520, 2000.

Vinnikov, K. Y., N. C. Grody, A. Robock, R. J. Stouffer, P. D. Jones, and M. D. Goldberg. "Temperature Trends at the Surface and in the Troposphere" Journal of Geophysical Research, 111, D03106, 2005.

Prabhakara, C., R. Iaacovazzi, J. M. Yoo, and G. Dalu. "Global Warming: Evidence From Satellite Observations" Geophysical Research Letters, 27, 3517-3520, 2000.

Fu, Q. and C. M. Johanson. "Satellite-Derived Vertical Dependence of Tropospheric Temperature Trends" Geophysical Research Letters, 32, L10703, 2005.

J. R. Christy, R. W. Spencer, W. D. Braswell. "MSU Tropospheric Temperatures: Dataset Construction and Radiosonde Comparisons" Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, vol. 17, pp. 1153-1170, 2000.


MSU/AMSU data are produced by Remote Sensing Systems. Over the years, we have received support for the development of this dataset from a number of sources, including NOAA's Office of Global Programs, NOAA's Climate Program Office, and NOAA's Climate Data Record Program. Production of the current dataset (version 3.3) is supported by NOAA's Climate Data Record Program, while improvements to the methods used to produce the dataset are currently supported by NASA's Earth Science Division, which is part of the Science Mission Directorate.

How to Cite These Data




TTS and TLS: 

Uncertainty Estimates: 

Radiosonde Comparisons: