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Aviation Meteorology

Cloud, fog and precipitation


Rev. 16 — page content was last changed 9 August 2011
  
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3.1 Cloud formation

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:

  • the volume of air remains constant but temperature is reduced to dewpoint; e.g. contact cooling and mixing of different layers
  • the volume of an air parcel is increased through adiabatic expansion
  • evaporation increases the vapour partial pressure beyond the saturation point
  • a change of both temperature and volume reduces the saturation vapour partial pressure.

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3.2 Cloud classification

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:

Cloud altitude bands
   Tropical Australia    Temperate Australia    Antarctic  
High20 000–60 00016 000–43 00010 000–26 000
Medium6500–26 0006500–23 0006500 –13 000
Low0–65000–65000–6500
High clouds

A two-letter code is used to identify cloud genera in meteorological reports, observations and aviation area forecasts.

  • Cirrus [CI] (Latin for 'curl'): white patches, banners, threads or delicate filaments of ice crystals. They often appear in patches of individual 'generating heads' with streaks of crystals falling from them thus forming comma-shaped or hooked 'mares' tails'. Cirrus clouds may merge into CS or CB. They are formed by widespread ascent, but sometimes by upper level turbulence in a smaller area.

  • Cirrostratus [CS]: a thin, transparent, amorphous, whitish veil of smooth or sometimes finely fibrous appearance, appearing over much of the sky at very high altitudes. They create the appearance of halos about the sun or moon. Cirrostratus may merge into CC or possibly AS, and are formed by widespread ascent and may thicken when preceding a cold front.

  • Cirrocumulus [CC]: thin, white patches, sheets or rows with small, regularly arranged elements or cloudlets in the form of grains or ripples, which may be merged or separate; sometimes with an appearance like fish scales — a 'mackerel sky'. The apparent width of elements is less than one degree. Cirrocumulus elements may merge together to form CS or separate into CI mares' tails. CC are produced by turbulence aloft — often associated with a front or upper-level disturbance.
Medium-level clouds
  • Altostratus [AS]: grey/bluish sheet, with coverage of possibly 8 oktas, of uniform appearance. They are often striated or fibrous, having parts thin enough to reveal a vague sun without any halo but possibly a corona. Altostratus often merges into NS. They are caused by widespread ascent and are usually associated with a front or upper-level disturbance.

  • Altocumulus [AC]: white/grey patches, bands or sheets of regularly arranged globular elements (sometimes called mackerel sky) — waves or rows with light shading, closely packed or merged. The element width is 2 to 5 degrees. (A finger width at arm's length is approximately 2 degrees; the spread between the tips of the little finger and thumb when a hand is splayed is about 22 degrees.) Altocumulus often shows coloured patches (irisation) around elements when illuminated by the sun or moon; a corona may be visible. They are usually caused by turbulence and are not associated with a change in the weather.

  • Nimbostratus [NS] (from the Latin 'nimbus' = cloud, aureole): thick, dense, dark grey layer, often with a ragged or diffused base, with continuous precipitation. Coverage is often 8 oktas. Scud (pannus) may form beneath it. Invariably they occur at medium level, but usually extend to high level and merge with AS; they may also extend to low levels and envelop hills. Nimbostratus are produced by widespread ascent.
Low-level clouds
  • Stratocumulus [SC]: grey/whitish patches, sheets or layers of separate or partly merged globular masses or rolls with dark shading and generally irregular appearance. If regularly arranged, the separate elements have apparent width exceeding 5 degrees. Coverage is often 8 oktas and may be penetrated by large CU or CB. Stratocumulus are probably the most frequently seen cloud in south-eastern Australia and are most frequent in winter anticyclones — 'anticyclonic gloom' — when moist air is trapped under an inversion. They are particularly noticeable around Melbourne.

  • Stratus [ST] (Latin = spread, laid down): grey, uniform layer with fairly even base from which drizzle may descend. The sun outline may be visible. Stratus envelops low hills. They sometimes appear in ragged patches, which are produced by frictional turbulence or possibly orographic ascent.

  • Cumulus [CU] (Latin = heap): white, heaped tops with generally grey, horizontal bases. Form is usually sharply outlined but may be ragged if evaporating. Vertical development varies greatly with atmospheric buoyancy, and bases can be at low or medium levels. Cumulus are formed by convection or possibly orographic ascent.
Vertically developed clouds
  • Cumulonimbus [CB]: heavy, dense cloud with massive vertical development, bases at low or medium levels, with tops possibly reaching (even overshooting) the tropopause. They may have a 'boiling' appearance during their vertical development stage. The base is usually very dark with lighter inflow areas. They are associated with heavy showers or virga — precipitation that evaporates before reaching the surface. Frequently low, ragged, turbulence cloud is mixed beneath it. Cumulonimbus are produced by vigorous convection. Refer to section 3.6.

    For more information on the types and dangers of thunderstorms read sections 9.4 through 9.7.

  • Towering cumulus [TCU]: CU with cauliflower appearance, often of great vertical extent. Properly known as cumulus congestus [CU CON].
Cloud structure and composition
Cloud typeHeight of baseVertical extentCompositionAssociated precipitation
CI20 000 + usually thin*ice crystalsfall streaks
CS20 000 + usually thinice crystalsnil
CC20 000 + usually thincrystals/dropletsnil
AS6000 – 20 000+up to 15 000usually crystals, occasionally mixedrain/snow
AC6000 – 20 000usually thinusually droplets to –10 C, some crystals to –30 C occasionally mixedrain, drizzle
NS0 – 8000+merges into ASwater dropletssteady rain, snow, ice pellets
SC1500 – 4000500 – 3000mainly droplets down to –15 Crain, drizzle, virga
ST0 – 2000200 – 1000usually water dropletsdrizzle
CU, TCU1500 – 15 000up to 15 000water dropletsrain showers
CB1500 – 500015 000 – 35 000+mainly droplets to –15 C, mixed at lower temperaturesrain/snow showers/virga, hail, ice pellets

*With fall streaks, the vertical extent of CI may exceed 5000 feet


   Photographs and more information on cloud classes and identification techniques can be found at the Australian Severe Weather website.


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.

  • Fibratus [FIB]: CI and CS in the form of long, irregularly curved or nearly straight parallel filaments, but without tufts or hooks. CI FIB, CS FIB

  • Spissatus [SPI]: dense or thickened CI plumes or CS, often originating from, or the remnants of, a CB anvil. Generally has a stormy appearance, looking greyish when viewed towards the sun. CI SPI, CS SPI

  • Uncinus [UNC] (Latin = hook): CI with filaments that are hooked or comma-shaped. 'Mares tail cirrus'. Ice crystals are forming at the high point of the fall streak where a small tuft of cloud may appear — the generating head. The crystals forming the tail are falling through atmospheric layers of varying wind velocity and persist for quite a while before evaporating. CI UNC

  • Nebulosus [NEB]: CS and AS as an indistinct veil lacking any detail. Also applied to low amorphous ST — lifted fog. CS NEB, AS NEB, ST NEB

  • Stratiformus [STR]: AC and SC, occasionally CC, spread out into an extensive sheet or layer. CC STR, AC STR, SC STR

  • Lenticularis [LEN]: (from the Latin 'lentil shaped') AC of orographic standing wave origin, sometimes CC or SC; occurs as a biconvex shape with a sharp margin, and often elongated if produced by a long ridge. They sometimes display iridescence. May form in long bands parallel to the Great Dividing Range and extend 50 to 100 nm downstream, towards the east; see mountain waves. When there are alternating layers of drier and moister air a tall, well-developed lenticularis formation may resemble an inverted stack of dinner plates, occasionally seen in the mountain areas of south-eastern Australia. CC LEN, AC LEN, SC LEN

  • Castellanus [CAS]: having a turreted or crenellated appearance and connected to a common cloud base line. They are generally AS (but forming AC), or sometimes SC, CI or CC, signifying increasing instability. AC CAS may precede the development of CB.

  • Floccus [FLO] (Latin = tuft of wool): CI, CC or particularly AC occurring in chaotic form, like a flock of sheep, each unit having a ragged base and a small cumuliform tuft above; 'thundery skies'. Often accompanied by virga. If developing CU reach this humid and unstable layer then energetic CB may develop.

  • Fractus [FRA]: ST or CU shreds with broken, ragged or wispy appearance, associated with formation or dispersion of low cloud. CU FRA often appears early in the morning, rising only slightly above the condensation level; they are also found in precipitation under CB. ST FRA is much darker than CU FRA when found under CB. ST FRA normally forms below NS or AS, and derives moisture from evaporating raindrops or surface water. Uplift from near-surface turbulence may produce ST FRA, particularly in areas of rising ground or low hills. If forming without overlying cloud, ST FRA forewarns of worsening low-level visibility and ST formation. Pannus or scud is a mix of CU FRA and ST FRA.

  • Humilis [HUM] (Latin = lowly): CU with small development and usually flattened at an inversion that is not far above the condensation level — 'fair weather CU'. Lifetime is 5 to 45 minutes. CU HUM

  • Mediocris [MED] (Latin = of middle degree): CU of intermediate vertical growth, occurring at no more than 3000 feet. They have tops showing small protuberances that are not actively growing. CU MED

  • Congestus [CON] (Latin = piled up): CU with cauliflower appearance, often of great vertical extent, perhaps 10 000 feet; generally known as towering CU [TCU]. Freezing does not occur. CU CON may produce heavy showers or microbursts, the latter particularly so in northern Australia.

  • Calvus [CAL] (Latin = bald): developing CB prior to anvil stage, but at least some of its upper part is losing its CU outline due to freezing. CB CAL

  • Capillatus [CAP] (Latin = hair): CB with distinct icy, upper fibrous or striated cirriform appearance. Frequently anvil-shaped, or untidy plumes, or disordered cirrus mass. CB CAP


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.

  • Intortus [IN]: irregularly curved or tangled CI.

  • Vertebratus [VE]: CI looking like fish bone, ribs or vertebrae.

  • Lacunosus [LA]: thin CC or AC with regularly spaced, net-like holes or a honeycomb appearance.

  • Undulatus [UN]: parallel undulations in patches, sheets or layers of CC, CS, AC, AS, SC or ST caused by waves in the airstream.

  • Radiatus [RA]: broad, parallel bands of CI, AC, AS, CU or SC appearing to converge towards a radiation point on the horizon, or both horizons.

  • Duplicatus [DU]: more than one layer of CI, CS, AC, AS or SC at slightly different levels. The winds at each layer are usually blowing in slightly different directions.

  • Translucidus [TR]: AC, AS, SC or ST in large sheets thin enough to show position of the sun or moon.

  • Perlucidus [PE]: AC or SC in broad layers or patches with small lanes that allow the sky to be seen.

  • Opacus [OP]: AS, AC, SC or ST that completely masks the sun or moon.
3.2.4 Accessory clouds

There are three cloud types that only exist in association with one of the main cloud genera:

  • Pileus (Latin = cap, hood, like mushroom cap): a short-lived, smooth lenticular cloud appearing in a humid stable layer above a CB or TCU when the rising thermal deflects the moving air in the layer up and over into the condensation level. Further CB or TCU development will push through the cap cloud, which may hang on as a temporary collar. There is a good photograph of such an event in the Sydney Storm Chasers website. In strong shear conditions, the cap cloud may form downwind.

  • Velum (Latin = veil): a thin, wide and persistent sheet of cloud accompanying a CB or TCU and forming in a humid, stable layer. Velum is dark in contrast to the convective cloud that generally rises through it.

  • Pannus (Latin = piece of cloth): a mix of CU FRA and ST FRA, or just a lump of ST. Scud rapidly forms or reforms generally at lower levels under precipitating CU, AS, CB or NS bases in turbulent lifting conditions, particularly when air rises rapidly at the edge of cool moist outflow, or a downburst or in upflow caused by the topography — and exacerbated by evaporation of moisture from forest canopies. Scud changes size and shape constantly, and may be drawn into the cloud base. Flight in a locality where pannus is forming — scud running — is a very dangerous activity for aviators.
3.2.5 Cloud features

Some notable cloud features are:

  • Incus (Latin = anvil): the anvil of a large CB, particularly a multicell or supercell storm, which has spread out, usually when upper-level winds are light. A severe storm attains maximum vertical development when the updraught reaches a stable layer which it is unable to break through — often the tropopause — and the cloud top spreads horizontally in all directions to form an overhanging anvil.

    The photograph and text below appeared in the "NSW Lightning Bolt" of August 1997 — produced by the Severe Weather Section of the Bureau of Meteorology, NSW. That anvil had a spread of about 30 km. The rollover around the underside of the anvil indicates rapid expansion.

    "Rose's magnificent photo (below) of a storm cloud near Millthorpe in NSW is familiar to many Bureau staff from the 1996 Weather Calendar, a 1995 Bureau Christmas card, and the new thunderstorm poster. The story of how the photo came to be taken may attract the writers at the Disney Studios. Rose relates the tale:

    '... my son Ian phoned to tell me about the clouds and to ask if I had a spare film, as his camera was empty. I tied a film to our kelpie's collar and sent him down the hill to Ian. Meanwhile, Ian's daughter Melanie was cycling up to get the film ... by the time they both met Ian the cloud had started to break up. Fortunately by then I had climbed two fences and taken the two shots ...' "

    Magnificent incus near Milthorpe, NSW – photo by Rose ??

  • Arcus (Latin = arch, bow or curve): a shelf-like cloud indicating the inflow region at the leading edge of a thunderstorm or a squall line. If conditions are very humid the shelf cloud will be a low, thick, curved and well-formed cloud bank. If there is a sharp, severe gust front there may be a vortex indicated by twisting scud under, and leading up to, the shelf. A roll cloud, like a horizontal tube, may develop if the leading edge of the shelf speeds up and detaches. SC, AC roll clouds are also associated with mountain waves and solitary waves.

  • Granitus: a localised cloud (always forming below the lowest safe altitude [LSALT] marked on aeronautical charts) enclosing and obscuring a large chunk of land, usually in the form of a hill or peak. Granitus is sometimes known as 'stuffed CU', which refers to both the solid content and the consequences of entering such a cloud.

  • Wall cloud: a localised, possibly rotating, lowering from a CB cloud base. Situated at the main updraught with a diameter ranging from 0.5 km to 5 km. Refer to section 9.5.


   The Sydney Storm Chasers website has many images of thunderstorm features.
There are good photos of wall clouds, arcus, pannus and mammatus.


  • Mammatus: hard, downward protuberances, pouches or bulges from the underside of a CB anvil (frequently) or CI, CC, AS, AC or SC, indicating descending pockets of small droplets or ice crystals. The sinking, saturated air is cooler than the air around it. As it sinks it warms, but warming is retarded because some of the heat is used in evaporating cloud droplets in the saturated air. If more energy is required for evaporation than is generated by adiabatic warming, then the air and the cloud pouches will continue to sink and will elongate the protuberances. The mamma associated with CI and CC are very shallow, forming undulations in the cloud trails. Mamma associated with CB are an indication of a dissipating storm rather than severe turbulence.

  • Fall streaks: virga-like showers of ice crystals or snowflakes from CI generating heads, which sink at rates up to 0.5 m/sec but slowing as they sublimate. As they sink through several thousand feet they become deflected by falling into winds of lower velocity, or slow through sublimation, and thus appear to trail back from the parent head as hooks, mares' tails, etc. Dense streaks combined with a strong drop in wind speed produce jet-stream banners — CI features that stream with the wind. AS and most stable cloud features lie across the wind.

  • Billow clouds: AC and AS found in a series of regular bands with clear areas between of similar width, occurring most frequently at 15 000 to 25 000 feet. At other times the upper surface (usually but could be the lower surface) of the cloud may have regular wave-like troughs and crests – undulatus.

    When a higher-level inversion occurs, the upper and lower air layers are generally stable. If there is a significant difference in wind velocity between the layers then there is vertical wind shear at the interface, and a phenomenon known as 'Kelvin-Helmholtz shearing instability' causes the formation of long but short-lived waves across the interface — in much the same way as ocean waves — which grow in amplitude until they curl up and break. The waves produce an extensive but shallow area of clear air turbulence. If sufficient moisture exists, the waves become visible as Kelvin-Helmholtz billows. Billows always move with the wind so that in wave clouds they appear to move from the front to the rear of the formation, evaporating in the troughs and re-condensing in the crests. Kelvin-Helmholtz instability produces the ripples seen when a light wind blows across a pond of water.

  • Pyrocumulus: CU initiated by bushfire thermal activity. Ray Kennedy's photograph below shows a CU CON building above the brown smoke during the Gippsland bushfires on New Year's Day 1998.

Pyrocumulus building above bush fire smoke

3.2.6 Stratospheric clouds
  • Nacreous (mother-of-pearl) clouds are rare, high-latitude, stratospheric clouds resembling CC LEN or AC LEN. Small patches are occasionally formed in winter, usually in stationary standing waves, and often in the lee of mountain ranges, which provide abrupt uplift. They usually occur in the ozone layer at about 25 km with temperatures down to –80C or –90C. Nacreous clouds are probably composed of spherical ice crystals about one to two microns diameter. Brilliant iridescence is shown at angular distances up to 40 degrees from the sun, and green and pink colours predominate. These clouds are brightest at sunset but are rarely seen in daylight.

  • Noctilucent clouds [NLC] are rare, tenuous, mesospheric cloud formations only seen from higher-latitude locations, normally around 40 to 60 south, against a twilit (nautical and astronomical) sky in summer. Sufficient contrast for observation occurs when the sun is between 6 and 16 below the horizon with maximum contrast at 10 when solar illumination and light scatter is at the maximum. They are seen close to the sunward horizon and extend maybe 20 above, along the twilight arch, although the clouds can be seen at a much higher elevation. The clouds appear to be near the mesopause at about 80 km and are moving with the zonal easterlies. They resemble high CI with pronounced band or wave structures, commonly herring-bone, bluish-white to pure white with yellow beneath. They are probably composed of cosmic dust with thin ice deposition, saturation of traces of water vapour being reached through orographic waves resonated from the earth's surface, or possibly oxidation of atmospheric methane.

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.
3.2.7 ICAO / WMO Cloud continuity scale
  • SKC — sky clear, no cloud.
  • FEW — few clouds, one to two oktas cover.
  • SCT — scattered, 3 – 4 oktas cover. Clear intervals between clouds predominate.
  • BKN — broken, 5 – 7 oktas. Cloud masses predominate.
  • OVC — overcast, 8 oktas. Continuous, no clear intervals.

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3.3 Lifting sources

There are four main processes that provide the lifting source for moist air to form cloud:

  • convection
  • frictional turbulence
  • orographic ascent
  • convergence or widespread ascent.
3.3.1 Convection

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:

Thermal vertical velocity
Thermal strengthKnotsFeet/minMetres/sec
Weak1 – 2100 – 2000.5 – 1
Moderate2 – 6200 – 6001 – 3
Strong6+600+3+

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.

convective cloud_development

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.

3.3.2 Frictional turbulence

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.

convective cloud_development

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.

3.3.3 Orographic ascent

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.

The air in the broad area ahead of a cold front is lifted by the frontal action. Generally the air rises very slowly, possibly one to five feet/minute, and cools. If moist enough, the air condenses at the lifting condensation level producing extensive layers of stratus-type cloud: NS, AS, CS and CI. However active or fast-moving fronts may nose the air up much more rapidly, leading to CB development.

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3.4 Fog

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 Precipitation

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.

   Light drizzle [–DZ]: visibility greater than 1000 metres
   Moderate drizzle [DZ]: visibility 500–1000 metres
   Heavy drizzle [+DZ]: visibility less than 500 metres

   Light rain showers [–SHRA]: precipitation rate under 2 mm/hour
   Moderate rain showers [SHRA]: 2–10 mm/hour
   Heavy rain showers[+SHRA]: more than 10 mm/hour

   Light rain [–RA]: under 0.5 mm/hour, individual drops easily seen
   Moderate rain [RA]: 0.5–4 mm/hour, drops not easily seen
   Heavy rain [+RA]: more than 4 mm/hour, rain falls in sheets

Weather radar reports precipitation according to the reflectivity level:
    1 – light precipitation
    2 – light to moderate rain
    3 – moderate to heavy rain
    4 – heavy rain
    5 – very heavy rain, hail possible
    6 – very heavy rain and hail, large hail possible

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.

3.5.2 Snow [SN]

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.

3.5.3 Hail and other ice forms

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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3.6 Thunderstorm development

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:
    Cumuliform: forms when a very strong updraught spreads rapidly and without restriction.
    Back-sheared: the cloud top spreads upwind, against the high-level flow, this indicates a very strong updraught.
    Mushroom: a rollover or lip around the underside of an overhanging anvil, which indicates rapid expansion.
    Overshooting top: a dome-like protusion through the top of an anvil, which indicates a very strong updraught pulse. The overshooting top in large tropical storms has been known to develop into a 'chimney' form, towering maybe 10 000 feet into the stratosphere, with an extensive plume cloud extending downwind from its top. Such clouds transfer moisture to the stratosphere.


   The Australian Bureau of Meteorology Web site has a storm spotters' guide.
Parts 1 and 2 briefly describe the structure and types of thunderstorms likely to be encountered in Australia.



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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3.7 Flight in cloud or without external visual references

The human vestibular system

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.

Spatial disorientation

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.





Next – planetary scale tropospheric systems 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]

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