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Cloud, fog and precipitation
Rev. 16 — page content was last changed 9 August 2011
Generally, upward motion of moist air is a prerequisite for cloud formation, downward motion dissipates it. Ascending air expands, cools adiabatically and, if sufficiently moist, some of the water vapour condenses to form cloud droplets. Fog is likely when moist air is cooled not by expansion but by contact with a colder surface.
Water vapour generally needs something to condense onto to form liquid. Common airborne condensation nuclei are dust, smoke and salt particles; their diameter is typically 0.02 microns (micrometres) but a relatively small number may have a diameter up to 10 microns. Maritime air contains about one billion nuclei per cubic metre (typically salt), while polluted city air contains many more. The diameter of a cloud droplet is typically 10 to 25 microns and the spacing between them is about 50 times the diameter — perhaps 1 mm — with maybe 100 million droplets per cubic metre of cloud. The mass of liquid in an average density cloud is approximately 0.5 gram per cubic metre.
Above the freezing level in the cloud, some of the droplets will freeze if disturbed by contact with suitable freezing nuclei or with an aircraft. Freezing nuclei are mainly natural clay mineral particles, bacteria and volcanic dust, perhaps 0.1 microns in diameter but up to 50 microns. There are rarely more than one million freezing particles per cubic metre; thus there are only enough to act as a freezing catalyst for a small fraction of the cloud droplets. Most freezing occurs at temperatures between –10 °C and –15 °C.
The balance of the unfrozen droplets remains in a supercooled liquid state, possibly down to temperatures colder than –20 °C. Eventually, at some temperature warmer than –40 °C, all droplets will freeze by self-nucleation into ice crystals, forming the high-level cirrus clouds. In some cases, fractured or splintered ice crystals will act as freezing nuclei. The ice crystals are usually shaped as columnar hexagons or flat plate hexagons. Refer to sections 3.5.2 and 12.2.2.
Condensation of atmospheric moisture occurs when:
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3.2.1 Cloud genera
Cloud forms are based on ten main genera, conventionally grouped into three altitude bands — high, medium and low — plus a vertically developed group. About 90% of atmospheric moisture exists below 20 000 feet with 50% or more in the band below 6500 feet. The altitudes included in each band are dependent on the thickness of the troposphere at nominal locations — tropical, temperate or polar. These are:
A two-letter code is used to identify cloud genera in meteorological reports, observations and aviation area forecasts.
Vertically developed clouds
*With fall streaks, the vertical extent of CI may exceed 5000 feet
3.2.2 Cloud species
Each of the cloud genera are subdivided into species by the addition of a common species descriptor (with a three-letter code), according to cloud shape and structure.
3.2.3 Cloud varieties
Each of the cloud genera and species can be further classified into varieties by use of a common descriptor for element arrangement, transparency, etc.
There are three cloud types that only exist in association with one of the main cloud genera:
Some notable cloud features are:
3.2.6 Stratospheric clouds
The Australian Severe Weather website has many excellent images grouped into cloud classifications, cloud features and atmospheric phenomena. Also the Cloud Appreciation Society website is well worth a visit.
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There are four main processes that provide the lifting source for moist air to form cloud:
When air flows over a surface heated by solar radiation, the surface contact layer is heated by conduction, and some of the heat is transported upward by molecular motion and small turbulent eddies. If the incoming energy is sufficient, the temperature in the lower layer increases and thermals rise from the heated contact layer — initially as bubbles of buoyant air, and then develop as columns with 100 – 300 metre diameters. The strength of the thermal depends on the heating:
Circling within a thermal (thermalling) is a prime source of uplift for soaring paragliders, hang gliders and sailplanes, and particularly so in the summer. In hot, dry areas of Australia, thermals exceeding 1000 feet/min are common.
The rising thermal cools at about the DALR of 3 °C/1000 feet and if it reaches dewpoint — the convection or lifting condensation level — cumulus will form. They are initially maintained by a series of random rising eddies, but if developed enough can draw in surrounding moist air and maintain itself, in a steady organised upward flow, from the release of the latent heat of condensation. If the cloud has enough energy to pass the freezing level it may develop into a rain and wind storm, and possibly a CB. Refer to section 3.6.
In most instances the air providing the water vapour for convective cloud growth comes from within the friction layer. When thermal turbulence of sufficient intensity to penetrate above the friction layer is present, and the condensation level lies above the friction layer, then isolated convective cloud — fair weather cumulus CU HUM — is formed with clear-cut bases and tops to the limit of penetration. A subsidence inversion above the condensation level may limit the vertical extent, with the cloud spreading out in broken SC. Night cooling also has the effect of spreading the cloud into broken SC. Air warmed by advection over a warm surface, particularly the sea, in a summer anticyclone provides ideal conditions for development of fair weather cumulus.
An airstream flowing over ground or water produces a turbulent layer, up to 500 feet deep in light winds or 3000 feet plus in strong winds. The vertical eddies within this friction layer or boundary layer transport air from the upper level to the surface, adiabatically warmed to a temperature above that of the surface air. Similarly surface air is transported to the upper level, cooling adiabatically to temperatures below that of the upper level. Thus, as the turbulent mixing continues, the lower level is warmed and the upper level is cooled until the temperature lapse rate through the layer equals the DALR and the layer is in neutral stability — providing the air remains unsaturated. An inversion is formed at the top of the friction layer. A pre-existing inversion, e.g. a subsidence inversion, will strengthen the process. Thermal turbulence will also be present.
The deep, turbulent mixing also has the effect of evening-out the moisture content throughout the layer and if the humidity mixing ratio is high enough a mixing condensation level will be reached within the friction layer. If the lapse rate of the layer above the friction layer is stable, then layer cloud will form with its base at the mixing condensation level and its top at the inversion. Thus the thickness of the cloud layer will vary from very thin to possibly 3000 feet.
If the upper air layer is unstable then cloud development would not be halted at the inversion and convective cloud would probably develop. If the wind is light the layer cloud would tend to ST, otherwise SC with undulations in the lower surface continually forming, with breaks where cloud is being evaporated in the down currents. ST FRA may also form with local variations in humidity, temperature and turbulence. Cloud produced by frictional turbulence is not usually associated with precipitation except perhaps for drizzle from dense layers.
Orography is the branch of physical geography concerned with mountains. An airstream encountering a topographic barrier (i.e. hill, ridge, valley spur, mountain range) is forced to rise, in a broad cross-section from at or near the surface to the upper levels, and cools adiabatically. If the lift and the moisture content are adequate, condensation occurs at the lifting condensation level and cloud is formed on or above the barrier. Stratus is formed if the air is stable, whilst cumulus forms if the air is slightly unstable. If there is instability in depth, coupled with high moisture, CB may develop (refer to section 3.6). Solar heating of ridges may cause the adjacent air to be warmer than air at the same level over the valleys; thus the ridge acts as a higher-level heat source, increasing buoyancy and accentuating the mechanical lifting.
The orographic lifting of an airstream provides gliders with the opportunity for ridge or hill soaring. Sea breezes crossing relatively small topographic barriers at the coastline (e.g. cliffs) may provide quite smooth uplift.
Orographic cloud — cap cloud — in stable conditions tends to form continuously on the windward side of mountain ridges, but clears on the lee side. Lenticular cloud may also form a high cap above a hill when there is a layer of near saturated air aloft; orographic lifting causes condensation, and descent causes evaporation. A mountain wave may form — particularly in a sandwiched, stable layer — resulting in the formation of a series of lenticular clouds.
3.3.4 Convergence and widespread ascent
The air in the centre of a low pressure centre, trough or heat trough is lifted by convergence, as is the air in the inter-tropic convergence zone.
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Fog [FG] is defined as an obscurity in the surface layers of the atmosphere that is caused by a suspension of water droplets, with or without smoke particles, and which is defined by international agreement as being associated with visibility less than 1000 metres. If the visibility is between 1000 and 5000 metres then the obscurity is mist — meteorological code BR, from the French brouillard = mist.
Radiation fogs are the prevalent fogs in Australia, with occurrence peaking in winter. They are caused by lowering of the ground temperature through re-radiation into space of absorbed solar radiation. Radiation fogs mainly occur in moist air on cloudless nights within a high-pressure system, particularly after rainfall. The moist air closest to the colder surface will quickly cool to dewpoint with condensation occurring. As air is a poor conductor, a light wind of 2–6 knots will facilitate the mixing of the cold air throughout the surface layer, creating fog. The fog itself becomes the radiating surface in turn, encouraging further cooling and deepening of the fog. An increase in atmospheric pollution products supplies extra condensation nuclei to enhance the formation of fog; i.e. smog.
A low-level inversion forms and the contained fog may vary from scattered pools in surface depressions to a general layer 1000 feet in depth. Calm conditions will result in a very shallow fog layer, or just dew or frost. The fog droplets sink at about 1 cm/sec. Surface winds greater than 10 knots may prevent formation of the inversion; the cooled air is mixed with the warmer air above, and so does not cool to dewpoint. If the forecast wind at 3000 feet is 25 knots or more, the low-level inversion may not form and fog is unlikely (refer to 'spread' in section 1.5). In winter, radiation fog may start to form in the evening and persist to midday — or later if the sun is cut off by higher-level cloud and/or the wind does not pick up sufficiently to break up the low-level inversion.
Advection fog may occur when warm, moist air is carried over a surface that is cooler than the dewpoint of the air. Cooling and some turbulence in the lower layer lowers temperature to dewpoint and fog forms. Sea fogs drifting into New South Wales coastal areas are advection fogs that are formed when the sea surface temperature is lower than the dewpoint, but with a steady breeze to promote air mixing. Dewpoint can be reached by both temperature reduction and by increased water vapour content through evaporation. Advection fogs will form in valleys open to the sea when temperature falls in the evening, and when combined with a sea breeze of 5 – 15 knots to force the air upslope. Thick advection fogs may be persistent in winter, particularly under a mid-level cloud layer.
Shallow evaporation fogs or steaming fogs result from the immediate condensation of water vapour that has just evaporated from the surface into near-saturated air. Steaming from a sun-warmed road surface after a rain shower demonstrates the process. Sea smoke or frost smoke is an evaporation fog occurring in frigid Antarctic air moving over relatively warm waters, thereby prompting evaporation into the cold air which, in turn, quickly produces saturation.
Freezing fog is a fog composed of supercooled water droplets that freeze on contact with solid objects; e.g. parked aircraft. When near-saturated air is very cold, below –24 °C at sea level to –45 °C at 50 000 feet, the addition of only a little moisture will produce saturation. Normally, little evaporation takes place in very cold conditions but release of water vapour from engine exhausts, for instance, can quickly saturate calm air (even though the engine exhaust heat tends to lower the relative humidity) and will produce ice fog at the surface or condensation trails [contrails] at altitude. If the temperature is below –40 °C, ice crystals form directly on saturation. Contrails persist if relative humidity is high but evaporate quickly if low. Distrails occur when the engine exhaust heat of an aircraft flying through a thin cloud layer dissipates a clear trail.
Frontal fog or rain-induced fog occurs when warm rain evaporates at surface level in light wind conditions and then condenses to form fog.
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3.5.1 Rain [RA] and drizzle [DZ]
Cloud droplets tend to fall but their terminal velocity is so low, about 0.01 metres/sec, that they are kept aloft by the vertical currents associated with the cloud construction process; but droplets will evaporate when coming into contact with the drier air outside the cloud. Some of the droplets are larger than others and consequently their falling speed is greater. Larger droplets catch up with smaller ones and merge or coalesce with them, eventually forming raindrops. Raindrops grow with the coalescence process and reach maximum diameters — in tropical conditions — of 4–7 mm before air resistance disintegrates them into smaller raindrops; this starts a self-perpetuating process. It takes about one million cloud droplets to form one raindrop.
The terminal velocity of a 4 mm raindrop is about 9 metres/sec. Only clouds with extensive depth, 3000 feet plus, will produce rain (rather than drizzle). But very small, high clouds — generating heads — may produce trails of snow crystals, which evaporate at lower levels — fall streaks or virga.
Drizzle forms by coalescence in stratiform clouds with depths possibly less than 1000 feet and with only weak vertical motion — otherwise the small (0.2 – 0.5 mm) drops would be unable to fall. It also requires only a short distance or a high relative humidity between the cloud base and the surface — otherwise the drops will evaporate before reaching the surface. Terminal velocity approximates 1–2 metres/sec.
Weather radar reports precipitation according to the reflectivity level:
Scotch mist is a mixture of thick cloud and heavy drizzle on rising ground, formed in conditions of weak uplift of almost saturated stable air.
At cloud temperatures colder than –10 °C where both ice and supercooled liquid water exist, the saturation vapour pressure over water is greater than that over ice. Air that is just saturated with respect to the supercooled water droplets will be supersaturated with respect to the ice crystals, resulting in vapour being deposited onto the crystal (refer to section 1.5). The reduction in the amount of water vapour means that the air is no longer saturated with respect to the water droplets. To achieve saturation equilibrium again, the water droplets begin to evaporate. Thus ice crystals grow by sublimation and water droplets lessen, i.e. in mixed cloud the ice crystals grow more rapidly than the water droplets. Snow is frozen precipitation resulting from ice crystal growth, and falls in any form between small crystals and large flakes. This is known as the Bergeron-Findeison theory and probably accounts for most precipitation outside the tropics. Snow may fall to the surface or, more often, melt below the freezing level and fall as rain.
Snowflakes are built by snow crystals colliding and sticking together in clusters of several hundred — known as aggregation. Most aggregation occurs at temperatures just below freezing, as the snow crystals tend to remain separate at colder temperatures.
The growing snow crystals acquire a fall velocity relative to the supercooled droplets. Growth also continues by collision and coalescence with supercooled droplets forming ice pellets [PE]. The process is termed accretion, or opaque riming if the freezing is instantaneous incorporating trapped air, or glazing if the supercooled water freezes more slowly as a clear layer. A similar process occurs with airframe icing. The ice pellets in turn grow by coalescing with other pellets and further accretion — these are termed hail [GR] when the diameter exceeds 5 mm. The size reached by hailstones before falling out of the cloud depends on the velocity and frequency of updraughts within the cloud. Hail is of course a hazard to aviation, particularly when it is unexpected; for example hail falling from a CB anvil can appear to fall from a clear sky. Snow grains [SG] are very small, flattened, opaque ice grains, less than 1 mm and equivalent to drizzle. Snowflakes that, due to accretion, become opaque, rounded and brittle pellets, 2 – 5 mm diameter, are called snow pellets or graupel [GS]. Sleet is transparent ice pellets less than 5 mm diameter that bounce on impact with the ground. Sleet starts as snow, partially melting into rain on descent through a warm layer, then refreezing in a cold near-surface layer. The term is sometimes applied to a snow/rain mixture or just wet snow. Diamond dust [IC] is minute airborne ice crystals that only occur under very cold (Antarctic) conditions.
When raindrops form in cloud-top temperatures warmer than –10 °C the rain falls as supercooled drops. Such freezing rain or drizzle striking a frozen surface, or an aircraft flying in an outside air temperature [OAT] at or below zero, will rapidly freeze into glaze ice. Freezing rain is responsible for the ice storms of North America and northern Europe, but the formative conditions differ from the preceding.
3.5.4 The seeder – feeder mechanism
Any large-scale air flow over mountain areas produces, by orographic effect, ice crystals in cold cloud tops. By themselves, the falling crystals would cause only light drizzle at the ground. However, as the crystals fall through the low-level mountain top clouds they act as seed particles for raindrops that are formed by coalescing cloud droplets with the falling crystals, producing substantial orographic rainfall in mountain areas.
Aerial cloud seeding involves introducing freezing nuclei (silver-oxide crystals with a similar structure to ice crystals) into parts of the cloud where few naturally exist, in order to initiate the Bergeron-Findeison process.
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Like CU, surface heating may provide the initial trigger to create isolated CB within an air mass but the initial lift is more likely to be provided by orographic ascent or convergence effects.
In the formative stages of a CB, the cloud may have an updraught pulse of 1000–2000 feet/min. The rising parcel of air reaches altitudes where it is much warmer than the surrounding air, by as much as 10 °C, and buoyancy forces accelerate the parcel aloft possibly reaching speeds of 3000–7000 feet/min. Precipitation particles grow with the cloud growth. The upper levels of the cloud gain additional energy from the latent heat released from the freezing of droplets, and the growth of snow crystals and hailstones. When the growth of the particles is such that they can no longer be suspended in the updraught, then precipitation — and its associated drag downdraught — occurs.
If the updraught path is tilted by wind shear or veer, rather than vertical, then the precipitation and its downdraught will fall away from the updraught, rather than back down through it (consequently weakening or stopping the updraught) and a co-existing updraught/downdraught may become established. An organised cell system controlling its environment and lasting several hours may evolve.
Middle-level dry air from outside the cloud is entrained into the downdraught of an organised cell. The downdraught is further cooled by the dry inflow air evaporating some of its water and ice crystals, and tends to accelerate downwards in vertical gusts. At the same time, the downdraught maintains the higher horizontal momentum it gained at upper levels from the higher forward speed of the storm at that height. When the cold, plunging air nears the surface, the downburst spreads out in all directions as a cold gust front or squall. This is strongest at the leading edge of the storm and weakest towards the trailing edge.
Each organised cell system contains an updraught / downdraught core. Beneath this is the outflow region containing the rain shield. The core is bounded by the downdraught gust front, a flanking line with a dark, flat base. Underneath this is the inflow region of warm, moist air. The CU and TCU generated by the inflow within the flanking line are the genesis of new cells. Within the core, the condensation of moisture from the inflow region produces rain, hail and snow and the associated downdraught to the outflow region. When the cool air outflow exceeds and finally smothers(or undercuts and chokes off) the inflow, then the storm dissipates.
High moisture content in the low-level air with dry, mid-level air and atmospheric instability are required to maintain CB development. The amount of precipitation from a large storm is typically 200 000 tonnes but severe storms have produced 2 million tonnes.
Anvils may take several forms:
For further information on clouds, fog and precipitation consult the University of Manchester's Intute, an online catalogue of internet resources in Earth sciences.
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When walking, a person's prime sense of orientation is provided by visual references. When vision is severely degraded, the vestibular system in the inner ears, which senses motion and gravity (thus roll, pitch and yaw), generally allows us to keep our balance when walking without using visual references. However, the vestibular system is not designed for high speed or angular motion, and cannot be used as an in-flight back-up system; i.e. you cannot close your eyes and continue to fly straight and level. Motion of the fluid within the ears' semicircular canals is affected by inertia and will feed quite erroneous prompts to the brain, resulting in various types and levels of vertigo.
For example, without the external visual references of clear sky, terrain or a horizon, forward deceleration tends to give a pitching-down sensation whilst forward acceleration gives a pitching-up sensation. Once settled into a constant rate turn, the sensation is of not turning at all; but when the turn is halted, the sensation is then of turning in the opposite direction. In addition, the vestibular system will not detect slow rates of bank, so that if the aircraft is banking at the rate of one or two degrees per second the vestibular system will not send any prompts to the brain — it will consider the aircraft is still flying straight and level, while any associated speed changes may provide contrary sensations. For example, if the aircraft is slowly banking and accelerating in a descending turn, the sensation may well be one of pitching-up.
Aircraft accidents caused by spatial disorientation are usually fatal and occur when VFR flight is continued in adverse visibility conditions — cloud, fog, smoke, haze, showers, oncoming darkness and combinations thereof. Pilots who have not been trained to fly solely by visual reference to the flight instruments in a 'blind flying' panel will soon find themselves experiencing spatial disorientation should they, inadvertently or deliberately, enter cloud where the external visual references — by which they normally orient themselves in visual meteorological conditions — are lost. The same applies to any atmospheric condition or in adverse weather where the visual references (horizon [principally], terrain and clear sky) are lost or just significantly reduced — smoke from bushfires or extensive burning of sugar cane, for example.
Even a pilot who is well experienced in flying in instrument meteorological conditions may occasionally experience a phenomenon called 'the leans'. This usually occurs when the aircraft has been inadvertently allowed to slowly bank a few degrees and the pilot then makes a quick correction to level the wings. The vestibular system doesn't register the initial bank but does register the wing levelling as an opposite direction bank (away from a wings-level attitude) — and the pilot's brain produces a leaning sensation while also perceiving from the instrument readings that the aircraft is flying straight and level. The reaction — which can persist for quite a while — may be for the pilot to lean sideways in her/his seat so that everything feels right!
Read the section titled 'Pressing on in deteriorating conditions' in the Flight Planning and Navigation Guide.
For more information on the vestibular functions and effects, google the terms 'vestibular spatial disorientation' in a web search.
|The next section of the Aviation Meteorology Guide covers planetary scale tropospheric systems|
Aviation meteorology guide modules
| Meteorology guide contents | The atmosphere and thermodynamics (part 1) | Thermodynamics (2) and dynamics |
| Effects of altitude — contained in the Flight Theory Guide module 2 & module 3 |
| (Cloud, fog and precipitation) | Planetary-scale tropospheric systems | Synoptic scale systems |
| Southern hemisphere winds | Mesoscale systems | Micrometeorology — atmospheric hazards |
| Airframe and engine icing | Atmospheric electricity | Atmospheric light phenomena |
| Aviation weather reports and forecasts |
Copyright © 2000–2011 John Brandon [contact information]
Page edited by RA-Aus member Dave Gardiner www.redlettuce.com.au