how is visibility measured

How is visibility measured in weather?

The weather affects many facets of daily life, from driving, flying, and other outside activities.

Distance at which a human can make out individual elements of the atmosphere is called visibility. 

Knowing how visibility is measured is crucial for comprehending weather conditions and the risks associated with limited visibility.

So, how is visibility measured in weather?

It is possible to measure visibility through ground-based observations, airborne visibility assessment, and several automated tools. 

What Does Visibility Mean in Weather?

what does visibility mean in weather

The horizontal distance at which an observer is able to distinguish a distinct black object against the sky at the horizon during the day indicates visibility.

Similarly, visibility may refer to the distance at which a recognized, unfocused, moderately strong light source during the night can be noticed.

If you measure the visibility from the ground up, and it is greater than or equal to the half-circle horizon visibility, you have surface visibility

Getting Visibility Measured Properly

Sensors used to gauge visibility calculate how far a beam of light may travel through the air before losing 95% of its intensity to atmospheric refraction.

The term “meteorological optical range” describes this separation.

getting visibility measured properly

For a long time, people’s best guesses of visibility were based on their ability to make out silhouettes of faraway objects against a dark background, such as the sky.

Some rules of thumb to consider when assessing visibility include the following:

  • An object needs to stand out from the background enough to be recognized as what it is.
  • Visibility estimates are best made from the ground, with a clear view of the horizon.
  • When reporting visibility, you must use the lowest value if it varies in different directions.
  • The overall or prevailing visibility should be recorded for aircraft safety. 

How is Visibility Measured Aviation and Weather?

In aviation, visibility is of immense importance and refers to the distance a pilot can easily identify prominent objects.

Even for seasoned pilots, low visibility can provide significant challenges during flight.

visibility measured in aviation and weather

To guarantee the safety and efficiency of aircraft operations, knowing how visibility is assessed and how it affects aviation is crucial.

In aviation, visibility can be gauged in a number of ways, using anything from automated instrumentation to simple ground-based observations. 

Let us have a deeper look at these approaches and discuss why visibility is so crucial for pilots and air traffic controllers. 

Ground Based Observations

Visibility has often been gauged using human observations made from the ground.

At airports and weather stations, meteorological observers measure the clarity of the sky by using distanced objects as a reference.

ground based observations

These observers use cues like:

  • Landmarks
  • Lights
  • … and other points of reference

Although ground-based observations have been crucial throughout aviation’s development, they do have their limits.

Fact: Visibility can be seen differently by different people, and the data may not correctly reflect the circumstances that pilots experience at different altitudes. 

Airborne Visibility Measurements

Due to technological advancements, aircraft-based visibility assessment systems are now quite efficient.

These devices use laser or light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology to gauge the visibility and are installed on the aircraft.

airborne visibility measurements

Taking visibility readings from above has many benefits over doing it on the ground.

This real-time information helps pilots make course corrections and altitude adjustments in response to changing weather conditions.

They can also measure visibility at greater heights and locations than observers on the ground can.

This in turn gives pilots a more complete picture of the meteorological conditions they will encounter. 

Automated Instruments

Visibility is increasingly being measured at airports and other areas with automated weather stations and sensors

automated instruments

It is possible to measure visibility-reducing airborne particles, such as:

  • Haze
  • Dust
  • Fog

The forward scatter sensor is a form of automated visibility sensor that is widely used.

Visibility is determined by the device’s measurement of the intensity of light dispersed by particles in the air.

An Important Consideration

There are a number of ways in which automated equipment excel above human observers.

They are able to offer constant, objective measurements of visibility that are not as prone to error or bias.  

Fact: The transmissometer is another typical instrument used to test visibility by determining how much light is being absorbed by airborne particles. 

More about the Importance of Visibility in Aviation

the significance of visibility in aviation

Pilots need clear skies for many reasons.

First, pilots need to rely heavily on visual clues to stay alert and oriented in the cockpit.

The capacity to observe the ground, other aircraft, and objects is crucial for properly navigating the environment and avoiding collisions.

Second, having good visibility is mandatory for landings and takeoffs.

It might be challenging for pilots to:

  • Find the runway
  • Get the plane lined up straight
  • Determine how low to fly in low visibility
Fact: Instrument Flight Regulations (IFR) and Instrument Landing Systems let pilots get around when the weather is bad (ILS). 

Visibility and Its Importance for Air Traffic Controllers

importance for air traffic controllers

Controlling the flow of air traffic in regulated airspace is a crucial job for air traffic controllers.

They rely heavily on their ability to see to visually identify and monitor airplanes near airports and other congested airspace.

Air traffic controllers may have to rely more heavily on radar and other electronic devices to keep track of aircraft in low-visibility conditions.

In order to ensure everyone’s safety, they may need to institute new protocols, such as increasing the space between planes

Factors Affecting Visibility in Weather

The ability to predict and deal with low visibility depends on understanding the many meteorological factors that can affect it.

The following are some of the most important aspects that affect visibility: 


fog presence

Fog forms when the air near the ground cools and water vapor condenses into small water droplets. And it is a typical cause of poor visibility.

It is possible to break down fog into different sub-categories, including:

  • Advection fog
  • Radiation fog
  • Upslope fog

These types depend on the density of the fog, which also has a direct impact on visibility, making it difficult for outdoor activities like flying and driving. 


haze presence

Haze occurs when fine particles in the air cause a decrease in visibility.

Some of the most common causes of haze include:

  • Plant emissions
  • Air pollution
  • Ground dust

It is worth mentioning that visibility may be impaired and the sky may appear white or gray if haze scatters sunlight


Smoke from various sources can impair visibility to a great extent. 

Some of the most common causes of smoke include:

  • Controlled burns
  • Wildfires
  • Industrial emissions

No matter the source, the presence of smoke in the air can have a direct impact on visibility.

Fact: The degree to which visibility is impaired depends on the number and size of the smoke particles in the air. 



Visibility can be impaired by precipitation such as rain, snow, or sleet because of the increased density of ice particles and water droplets in the air.

Again, the degree to which visibility is impaired is related to the amount of precipitation and the size of the particles involved. 

Dust and Sandstorms

Particles of dust or sand can be blown into the air by high winds in arid and semi-arid environments.

There are risks to human health and safety as well as to aviation and driving when vision is reduced to this degree. 

Air Pollution

air pollution

Elevated levels of air pollution contribute significantly toward reduced visibility. The problem is much more common in urban areas.

Light can be diffused and visibility reduced by particles and gases released by cars, factories, and other sources. Moreover, smog may also reduce visibility quite a bit.

Fact: Ground-level ozone, particulate matter, and other pollutants combine to create smog, which can significantly reduce visibility. 


Fog, mist, and haze can all occur in environments with high humidity, making it difficult to see.

It is easy to notice that wet air near the ground becomes foggy or hazy when it cools and condenses into small water droplets, reducing visibility. 


How is visibility measured? 

Experts in meteorology and related fields use a wide range of instruments to gauge the visibility and give crucial data for the benefit of the public.

Ground-based observations are important but other tools are now in use to measure visibility.

It is really important to be up-to-date and ready for any difficulties developing due to changes in visibility, and these new instruments really make things easier.