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Moisture, Cloud Formation, and Precipitation

Cody Kirkpatrick
Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana


1 Water Vapor 4

1.1 Relative Humidity–A Conceptual Example . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4

1.2 Capacity, Explained . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7

1.3 Dewpoint Temperature . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

1.4 Temperature-Dewpoint Spread: Dewpoint Depression . . . . . . . . . . . . 10

1.5 Calculating Relative Humidity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11

2 Changes of State 14

2.1 Latent Heat . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14

2.2 Condensation Nuclei . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16

2.3 Supercooled Water . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16

2.4 Dew and Frost . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17

3 Cloud Formation 17

3.1 Cooling Processes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18

3.2 Clouds and Fog . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18

This document is based on Chapter 5 of Aviation Weather, published by the FAA in 1975. It
has been modified by the author for use in courses at Indiana University. For further information,
please contact the author: Document last updated October 11, 2018.

4 Precipitation 19

4.1 Hydrometeor Growth . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19

4.2 Liquid, Freezing, and Frozen . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19

5 Land and Water Effects 20

6 In Closing 21

7 Questions for Exploration 23

Reading Goals

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

1. Define relative humidity, dewpoint temperature, and dewpoint depression (Section


2. Explain how these moisture variables are each related to saturation (Section 1)

3. Use dewpoint depression in making predictions about weather (Section 1)

4. Calculate relative humidity from temperature and dewpoint (Section 1)

5. Define latent heat and describe its role in changes of state

6. Discuss the role of CCN in cloud formation

7. Label regions of a tall cumulus cloud that likely have liquid, liquid and ice, and only


8. Predict the development of dew or frost

9. List the different mechanisms by which saturation can occur

10. Explain the role of CCN and the process of hydrometeor growth

11. Discriminate between precipitation types observed at the ground

12. Describe the ways in which bodies of water can influence cloud formation


Imagine, if you can, how boring our weather would be if the atmosphere had no mois-

ture. There would be no clouds, no rain, never any dew or frost. No thunderstorms,

no hurricanes. The moisture in our atmosphere creates a variety of phenomena largely

unmatched by any other weather element. Unlike on other planets, Earth’s temperature

range allows water to exist in the frozen, liquid, and gaseous states.

1. Water Vapor

Heated by the sun, liquid water present on earth’s surface evaporates into the air and be-

comes an ever-present but variable constituent of the atmosphere–water vapor. Because

it is the gaseous phase of H2 O, water vapor is invisible just as oxygen and other gases are

invisible. Although we can’t see it, we can readily measure the amount of water vapor

in the air, and we can describe that measurement in different ways. Two commonly used

terms are relative humidity and dewpoint.1

Question. You are at a science fair and a first grader asks you, “Where do mud

puddles go on a rainy day?” How do you respond?

1.1 Relative Humidity–A Conceptual Example

One of the most common ways to describe the amount of water vapor in the air is to ask,

“How close is the atmosphere to being saturated?” This measure is known as the relative

humidity. Expressed as a percent, relative humidity is true to its name: it tells us how

much water vapor is in the air, relative to the maximum amount that could be there. Let’s

think about this conceptually for a moment:

1 In
higher-level classes, you will likely learn about other ways to describe the amount of atmospheric
water vapor: vapor pressure, mixing ratio; specific humidity; virtual temperature; and more.

• A classroom has 20 chairs, and there are 10 students seated in the room. What is the

“relative fullness” of the room? (It’s 10 ÷ 20 = 0.5, or 50%.)

• What if five more students come into the room? What is the relative fullness of the

room now? (It’s 15 ÷ 20 = 0.75, or 75%.)

• And now, what if we take five chairs out of the room? What happens to the relative

fullness? (It becomes 15 ÷ 15 = 1, or 100% full. The room is at full capacity!)

Just like in our classroom example, relative humidity is nothing more than a ratio. It is

simply a fraction: the actual amount of water vapor present, divided by the air’s capacity

for water vapor–the “upper limit” to how much water vapor we can have at any one time.

In other words:

water vapor content

RH = × 100%. (1)
water vapor capacity

If the RH is 100 percent (that is, when content equals capacity), we define the air

as being “saturated” with water vapor. That is, we cannot have any more water vapor

molecules in the air: they must start condensing out into liquid. Inside a fog or a cloud,

the air is saturated; condensation is ongoing and we see the liquid water molecules that

are present. Think back to our classroom for a second: remember that we can change its

relative fullness by either changing the number of students or by changing the number of

available seats. This is what makes RH tricky to a lot of students: we must be mindful of

both the content and the capacity at the same time.

We know from decades of measurements how the relative humidity varies across the

globe. On the hottest days in a desert, the relative humidity may decrease to below 10%,

but air that is completely devoid of water vapor (i.e., RH = 0%) only ever exists in a

laboratory setting. In Bloomington, relative humidity typically ranges from 50% in the

daytime hours to 90% overnight, similar to what you see in Table 1.

Date Time Wind Visibility Weather Temp. Dewpoint RH

(EDT) (mph) (mi) ◦F ◦F %
21 15:53 NW 12 10 A Few Clouds 74 58 57
21 16:53 NW 8 10 A Few Clouds 76 56 50
21 17:53 W9 10 A Few Clouds 76 58 54
21 18:53 NW 7 10 Fair 74 57 56
21 19:53 NW 5 10 Fair 72 58 61
21 20:53 Calm 10 Fair 66 59 78
21 21:53 Calm 10 Fair 63 60 90
21 22:53 Calm 10 Fair 60 58 93
21 23:53 Calm 10 Fair 60 58 93
22 00:53 Calm 10 Fair 59 57 93
22 01:53 Calm 10 Fair 58 56 93
22 02:53 Calm 10 Fair 57 54 90
22 03:53 Calm 2.5 Fog/Mist 56 54 93
22 04:53 Calm 5 Fog 56 54 93
22 05:53 Calm 3 Fog/Mist 55 53 93
22 06:53 Calm 10 Fair 55 53 93
22 07:53 Calm 10 Fair 57 55 93
22 08:53 Calm 10 Fair 65 60 84
22 09:53 Calm 10 Fair 70 61 73
22 10:53 Calm 10 Fair 73 56 55
22 11:53 NW 3 10 Fair 74 56 54
22 12:53 Calm 10 Fair 76 56 50
22 13:53 N3 10 A Few Clouds 77 57 50
22 14:53 Calm 10 A Few Clouds 75 56 52
Table 1. One day of weather observations at Bloomington, Indiana, beginning at 4 p.m. EDT August 21,
2016, and ending at 3 p.m. the following day.

Questions. As you examine Table 1, try to answer the following:

• What time of day does RH appear to be the higest (say, greater than 90%)?

What is the weather like during those hours?

• What time of day does RH appear to be the lowest (say, below 60%)?

• Do either temperature or dewpoint have a relationship to RH? In other

words, does RH appear to have any correlation to any other variable?

• Here’s a hint to the previous question. At what time of day are the temper-

ature and dewpoint the closest to one another? The furthest apart? How

does this difference seem to correlate to RH?

1.2 Capacity, Explained

It turns out that the temperature of a parcel of air determines its capacity. The maximum

amount of water vapor that can we can put into a blob of air is determined solely by the

air temperature! One way to define the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is to

use the units of “mixing ratio:”

grams o f water vapor

mixing ratio = . (2)
kilograms o f dry air

This unit is just like any other (degrees for temperature; miles per hour for speed;

liters for volume); it is one of the most common to use for water vapor. As Fig. 1 shows,

this relationship is exponential: the ability of water vapor to exist in air increases dramatically

as that air warms. At a temperature of 40◦ F, it is possible for up to 5 g kg−1 of water

vapor to exist in a blob of air according to Fig. 1. That is not much compared to how

much water vapor could be in a blob of air that is 80◦ F–it could have over 20 g kg−1 !

Figure 1. Water vapor capacity of air as a function of temperature. The water vapor unit shown is known
as mixing ratio: the grams of water vapor that can be present in each kilogram of air. For example, air with
a temperature of 80◦ F has a capacity of about 23 g kg−1 of water vapor.

Always remember that temperature is related to the water vapor capacity–the upper limit–for

a particular blob of air. If air is cooled, its water capacity is reduced. Think back to Eq. 1:

if this cooling occurs while the water vapor content remains the same, the air’s relative

humidity approaches 100%.

Questions. Use Fig. 1 to answer the following questions.

• What is the water vapor capacity, in g kg−1 , if the air temperature is 50◦ F?

• What is the air temperature if the atmosphere’s water vapor capacity is

known to be 40 g kg−1 ?

1.3 Dewpoint Temperature

The actual amount of water vapor in the air (the “content”) is critically important to know,

but it is awkward to describe in terms of its usual variable of mixing ratio–and I bet you’ve

never heard a TV meteorologist say “the mixing ratio is 10 g kg−1 today.” Instead, we

express the water vapor content in a unit that is more familiar to us, a unit of temperature.

The temperature that corresponds to the atmosphere’s true water vapor content is the dewpoint


Dewpoint can also be known as the temperature to which air must be cooled to become

saturated by the water vapor already present in the air. Consider what happens in the

overnight hours. After the sun sets, temperature will decrease. As temperature (a mea-

sure of capacity) continues to decrease, it will approach the dewpoint (a measure of con-

tent), and, once the two are equal, the air is saturated and liquid will begin to appear on

the grass, on car windows, etc. This is why dew is often seen early in the morning after a

long night of temperature decline.

We use the same graph, Fig. 1, to relate content to dewpoint as we did for capacity to

temperature. That means that if the dewpoint is 50◦ F, there are about 8 grams of water

vapor present in every kilogram of air.

Dewpoint is one of the most common ways to describe water vapor content. On aver-

age, dewpoint temperatures in Bloomington will be near 25◦ F in January, and near 65◦ F

during the muggy months of July and August (Fig. 2). In areas of concentrated farm ac-

tivity in summer, dewpoints can sometimes exceed 75◦ F. Some scientists would prefer to

know the mixing ratio of the air instead of the dewpoint, and we could use Fig. 1 to take

any dewpoint and convert it to a mixing ratio if we needed to. (We’ll do that later.) For

now, just understand that dewpoint is related to content, and if the amount of water vapor

in the air is going up or down, the dewpoint will respond in the same way.

Figure 2. The average daily low (blue) and high (red) dewpoints for Bloomington, Indiana. Shaded areas
represent percentile bands (inner dark bands from 25th to 75th percentile, outer light bands from 10th to
90th percentile). Image reproduced from

Questions. Try to answer these questions related to the dewpoint.

• The weather station at the Bloomington airport reports a dewpoint of 70◦ F.

What is the water vapor content, in terms of mixing ratio?

• In the deserts of Arizona in summer, there is rarely more than 5 g kg−1 of

water vapor in the air at any time. What is the upper limit to the dewpoint

that you would expect to find there?

1.4 Temperature-Dewpoint Spread: Dewpoint Depression

When we compare the air temperature and the dewpoint to one another, we discover

qualitatively how close the air is to saturation. The difference between air temperature

and dewpoint temperature is popularly called the “spread” or the dewpoint depression or

DD. To find it, simply subtract:

DD = T − Td . (3)

As the dewpoint depression decreases, relative humidity increases, and air comes closer

and closer to being saturated. RH is 100% when temperature and dewpoint are the same.

The dewpoint depression is often useful in anticipating fog but actually has little bearing

on whether precipitation is occurring at the ground. To support precipitation, clouds are

needed aloft, not right at the ground (which would be fog). Inside a cloud, where the air

is saturated, the dewpoint depression is zero. Fig. 3 shows a summer weather map from

the central United States with typical temperatures and dewpoints, from which you can

easily calculate the dewpoint depressions.

Sometimes this spread at ground level may be quite large, yet at higher altitudes the

air is saturated and clouds exist. If that cloud is producing rain, the raindrops may reach

the ground or may evaporate as they fall into the drier air. Fig. 4 is a photograph of

“virga”–streamers of precipitation trailing beneath clouds but evaporating before reach-

ing the ground. Our never-ending weather cycle involves a continual reversible change

of water from one state to another. In Section 2 we will take a closer look at changes of


Question. Where would you expect the dewpoint depression or “spread” to be

greater: in a desert or in a rain forest? Why?

1.5 Calculating Relative Humidity

We have stated that dewpoint depression is a proxy for relative humidity, but we have yet

to establish exactly how to calculate RH. Remember from Eq. 1 that RH deals with content

and capacity. Unfortunately, that means we cannot simply divide dewpoint by temperature to

determine the humidity! Don’t do that! Instead, to properly calculate RH, divide the water vapor

content by the capacity, remembering that Fig. 1 allows us to convert between temperature

units (◦ C or ◦ F, usually) and mixing ratio units (g kg−1 ).

Figure 3. Surface weather conditions at 18 UTC on 9 August 2016. The top number at each station is temper-
ature, and the bottom number is dewpoint, with units of Fahrenheit. The degree of cloud cover is indicated
by the amount of each circle that is filled in. Where is dewpoint depression the largest? (Hint: the spread
there is 56◦ F). Where is it the lowest? (Hint: the spread there is 1◦ F).

Figure 4. Most of the precipitation falling from this cloud is evaporating before reaching the ground. This
is virga. Photograph by Richard Droker, 6 April 2012. Creative Commons License.

Figure 5. Relative humidity as a function of both temperature and dewpoint. From Weather Basics by Bal-
sama and Chaston.

Example: Consider a day where the temperature is 80◦ F and the dewpoint is

70◦ F. What is the relative humidity?

• According to Fig. 1, this temperature corresponds to a water vapor capac-

ity of 23 g kg−1 .

• Using the same figure, this dewpoint corresponds to a water vapor content

of 16 g kg−1 .

• Now, use Eq. 1 to find the final answer:

water vapor content 16 g kg−1

RH = × 100% = × 100% = 70%. (4)
water vapor capacity 23 g kg−1

Fig. 5 shows how temperature, dewpoint, and relative humidity all fit together

and confirms that for this example, RH = about 70%. However, you should

always do the actual calculation when you need a numerical answer.

Figure 6. The six phase changes of water substance.

2. Changes of State

Basic observation tells us that there are three primary states of water on earth: solid (ice),

liquid (water), and gas (water vapor). As these molecules gain or lose energy, they may

change state: for example, the melting of ice into liquid water. There are six phase changes

to explore (shown in Fig. 6.) Evaporation is the changing of liquid water to invisible water

vapor. Condensation is the reverse process. Sublimation and deposition are changes

directly between water vapor and ice, bypassing the liquid state in each process. Snow or

ice crystals normally result from the deposition of water vapor directly to the solid state,

just as frost forms on cool autumn mornings. Dry ice, or frozen CO2 , that is giving off

vapor is a common example of sublimation. We are all familiar with freezing and melting


2.1 Latent Heat

Think about the boiling of water for a moment. In the instant before the liquid water

molecules separate from one another and turn into a vapor, the liquid has a temperature

of 212◦ F, or 100◦ C. The additional energy that is added beyond that point will cause the

liquid to turn into vapor, but the molecules will all remain at 100◦ C. Any change of state

involves a heat transaction with no change in temperature. Fig. 6 diagrams the heat exchanges

between the different states. Evaporation requires heat energy that comes from the near-

est available heat source. This heat energy is known as the “latent heat of vaporization,”

and its removal cools the source it comes from. An example is the cooling of your body by

evaporation of perspiration. In order to evaporate, the beads of perspiration draw heat

energy out from your skin – this is especially true when a light breeze is blowing and

explains why you feel cool as the wind speeds up the evaporation process. Latent heat

is the extra energy required to cause the physical change of state of a substance–in the case of

evaporation, breaking the molecular bonds of water and freeing the molecules to become


What becomes of this heat energy used by evaporation? Energy cannot be created or

destroyed, so it is transferred to and stored by the water vapor molecules themselves. The

water vapor molecules are free to fly around the atmosphere at high speeds, compared

to being locked together in a liquid and moving much more slowly. When the water

vapor later condenses to liquid or deposits directly to ice, energy originally used in the

evaporation reappears as heat and is released back to the atmosphere. This energy is

“latent heat” and is a major driver of thunderstorms, hurricanes, and other large weather

systems. Melting and freezing involve the exchange of “latent heat of fusion” in a similar

manner. The latent heat of fusion is much less than that of condensation and evaporation;

however each in its own way plays an important role in the atmosphere.

Once air is saturated, water vapor begins to condense on the nearest available surface.

At the ground, we might experience this as dew on the grass, or fog on a window or

mirror. But what surfaces are in the atmosphere on which water vapor may condense?

2.2 Condensation Nuclei

The atmosphere is never completely clean; an abundance of microscopic solid particles

suspended in the air are condensation surfaces. These particles, such as salt, dust, dirt,

and combustion byproducts are known as “condensation nuclei” or “cloud condensation

nuclei,” CCN. Some CCN have an affinity for water and act as the surface upon which

water vapor molecules can condense and begin to grow cloud droplets and raindrops.

As water vapor condenses or sublimates onto condensation nuclei, liquid or ice parti-

cles will grow. Keep in mind, however, that like putting an ice cube tray into the freezer,

not all liquid water freezes instantly when it is exposed to subfreezing temperatures (high

in the atmosphere, for example). It is possible for liquid water to exist for a time at tem-

peratures well below freezing. Temperatures must approach -40/dgc before all water

droplets have frozen into ice.

2.3 Supercooled Water

Freezing is a complex physical process and requires CCN. Water droplets that are still

liquid in air colder than 0◦ C are called “supercooled.” When supercooled water strikes an

exposed object, the impact causes freezing to occur instantly. For example, it is dangerous

for airplanes to fly through clouds where the temperature is just below 0◦ C, since impact

freezing of supercooled water can result in aircraft icing.

Supercooled water drops are almost always present in clouds at temperatures between

0◦ C and −15◦ C, with decreasing amounts at colder temperatures. Usually, at tempera-

tures colder than −15◦ C, clouds and fog will be mostly ice crystals with a lesser amount

of supercooled water (that is, almost all the liquid has frozen by now). However, strong

vertical currents may carry supercooled water to great heights where temperatures are

much colder than −15◦ C. Supercooled water is almost never observed at temperatures

colder than −40◦ C, even in a lab.

[Insert drawing of different ”layers” of a cloud based on temperature. We’ve had one in the

slides previously.]

2.4 Dew and Frost

During clear nights with little or no wind, the land surface often cools by radiation until

the temperature equals the dewpoint of the adjacent air. Condensation will then occur,

and moisture will collect on the leaves just as it does on a pitcher of ice water in a hot day.

Heavy dew often collects on grass and plants when none collects on pavements or large

solid objects. These more massive objects absorb abundant heat during the day, lose it

more slowly during the night, and cool to the dewpoint only in rather extreme cases.

Frost forms in much the same way as dew. The difference is that the dewpoint of surround-

ing air must be colder than freezing. Water vapor then sublimates directly as ice crystals or

frost, rather than condensing as dew. Sometimes dew forms (as a liquid) and later freezes;

however, frozen dew is easily distinguished from frost. Frozen dew is hard and transpar-

ent while frost is white and opaque.

Until now, we have said little about clouds. What brings about the condensation or

sublimation that results in cloud formation?

3. Cloud Formation

Normally, air must become saturated for visible condensation or deposition of water va-

por to occur. Saturation may result from:

• cooling an air parcel’s temperature, or

• increasing its dewpoint,

• or both.

Figure 7. A cumulonimbus (precipitating cumulus) cloud off the coast of Embleton, United Kingdom, on
21 August 2009. Photo by Steve Bridger. Creative Commons License.

3.1 Cooling Processes

Cooling of air to its dewpoint is the most common method of cloud formation, and three

basic processes may cool air to saturation. They are: air moving over a colder surface;

stagnant air overlying a surface that is cooling; and expansional cooling in upward-

moving air. Expansional cooling is the major cause of cloud formation. In future class meetings,

we’ll discuss expansional cooling in more detail.

3.2 Clouds and Fog

A cloud is a visible aggregate of billions of tiny water or ice particles suspended in air. If

the cloud is on the ground, it is known as fog. When entire layers of air cool to saturation,

fog or sheet-like stratus clouds result. Saturation of a localized updraft of air produces

a towering, cumulus cloud. A cloud may be composed entirely of liquid water, of ice

crystals, or a mixture of the two. Since air cools as it rises, the taller a cloud develops, the

more likely that the cloud will contain ice.

4. Precipitation

Precipitation is an all-inclusive term denoting drizzle, rain, snow, ice pellets, hail, and

ice crystals. Precipitation occurs when these particles, or hydrometeors, grow in size and

weight until the updrafts that produced them can no longer can keep them high in the

atmosphere. These particles grow primarily in two ways.

4.1 Hydrometeor Growth

Once a water droplet or ice crystal forms, it continues to grow as water vapor continues

or deposits directly onto the particle. This is a slow, inefficient method of growth and

usually results only in drizzle or very light rain or snow.

A more efficient and rapid growth process for raindrops is simply collision: cloud

droplets can collide and merge into a larger drop.2 Upward-moving air currents in clouds–

updrafts–enhance the growth rate and also keep drops from falling to the ground until

they get even larger.. Precipitation formed by collision processes, coupled with modest

updraft speeds, can produce light to moderate rain and snow. Stronger updrafts, such

as those found in thunderstorms, support the largest drops and build clouds to great

heights. They can produce heavy rain and hail, or if the entire atmosphere is below freez-

ing heavy snow in winter.

4.2 Liquid, Freezing, and Frozen

Hydrometeors that form as raindrops and stay above 0 ◦ Cwill remain liquid and be ex-

perienced on the ground as rain or drizzle. Deposition processes form snowflakes, and if

the air they fall through is all below freezing, they will remain frozen and reach the ground as

2 Scientists who study the physics of clouds often refer to this process as “collision-coalescence.”

Precipitation will change its state if the temperature of its environment changes. Snowflakes

will begin to melt if they fall into air that is above freezing3 and may eventually become

rain. But once these snowflakes melt into raindrops, they can never become snowflakes again!

Raindrops that fall through colder (subfreezing) air may become supercooled, freezing on

impact as freezing rain; or they may freeze as they fall, landing as ice pellets, also called sleet.

Sleet always implies freezing rain at higher altitudes.

Sometimes strong updrafts sustain large supercooled water drops until they freeze;

subsequently, other can drops freeze onto them forming hailstones. (Thunderstorms and

hail will be discussed later.)

5. Land and Water Effects

Land and water surfaces underlying the atmosphere greatly affect cloud and precipitation

development. Large bodies of water such as oceans and lakes add water vapor to the air

that moves over them. The greatest frequency of low ceilings,4 fog, and precipitation

in areas where prevailing winds have an over-water trajectory. These hazards are also

common when moist winds are blowing upslope.

In winter, cold air frequently moves over relatively warm lakes. Unfrozen lake water

adds heat and water vapor to the air, often producing clouds and precipitation on the

downwind side of the lakes. In other seasons, the air may be warmer than the lake surface

it is moving over. When this occurs, the air may become saturated by evaporation from

the water while also becoming cooler in the low levels by contact with the cool water. Fog

often becomes extensive and dense downwind of a lake in this scenario. Fig. 8 illustrates

movement of air over both warm and cold lakes. Strong cold winds across the Great Lakes
3 When speaking of rain, snow, sleet, and freezing rain, we often use shorthand like “warm air” and
“cold air” to mean that air is warmer or colder than 0◦ C.
4 “Ceiling” is the aviation way of saying cloud base–a low ceiling is the same thing as a cloud base close

to the ground.

Figure 8. Lake effect clouds and precipitation. Air moving across a sizeable lake absorbs water vapor.
Showers may appear on the leeward (downwind) side if the air is colder than the water. When the air is
warmer than the water, fog often develops on the leeward side. (Figure 37 from Aviation Weather.)

will often carry precipitation hundreds of miles away to the Appalachians, as shown in

Fig. 9.

A lake only a few miles across can influence convection and cause a diurnal fluctuation

in cloudiness. Consider Fig. 10, a photo over Lake Okeechobee in Florida. During the

day, cool air over the lake blows toward the land, and convective clouds form around the

edges of the lake. At night, the pattern reverse; clouds tend to form over the lake as cool

air from the land flows over the lake creating convective clouds over the water.

6. In Closing

Water exists in three states–solid, liquid, and gas. Water vapor is an invisible gas. Con-

densation or sublimation of water vapor is the reason for cloud formation aloft and for

the precipitation that we experience on the ground. These processes are often driven by

vertical air currents known as updrafts and downdrafts. As a weather forecaster, you

may anticipate:

• Fog when the dewpoint depression is 5◦ F or less and decreasing.

• Clearing and dissipation of low clouds and fog when the dewpoint depression is


Figure 9. Strong cold winds blowing across the Great Lakes absorb water and may produce precipitation as
far eastward as the Appalachians. (Figure 38 from Aviation Weather.)

Figure 10. A view of clouds from 27,000 feet over Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida. Note the lake
effect. During the daytime, cool air from the lake flows toward the warm land (in all directions) forming
convective clouds over the land. (Figure 39 from Aviation Weather.)

• Frost on a clear night when the dewpoint depression is 5◦ F or less, is decreasing,

and the dewpoint is colder than 32◦ F.

• More cloudiness, fog, and precipitation when wind blows from over water than

when it blows from over land.

• Cloudiness, fog, and precipitation over higher terrain when moist winds are blow-

ing uphill.

• The formation of cumulus clouds originating from surface-based rising air on hot,

humid days.

• Showers to the lee of a lake when air is cold and the lake is warm. Expect fog to the

lee of the lake when the air is warm and the lake is cold.

7. Questions for Exploration

Note: some questions may require you to research topics that are not covered in this manuscript.

Go forth and learn!

1. What would the weather be like in places where there was very little (or almost no)

water vapor in the atmosphere? Do places like that exist on earth? Where?

2. The amount of water vapor in the atmosphere varies, but air is almost never more

than 4% water vapor by volume. In completely dry air, what percentage of the air

molecules are nitrogen? What percentage are oxygen?

3. Finish these sentences. A relative humidity of 0% means . A relative humidity

of 100% means .

4. Can the relative humidity ever go below 0%? What is the “mixing ratio” of water

vapor in the air when the air’s dewpoint is 0◦ C? Can the dewpoint ever go below

0◦ C?

5. Consider these temperature and dewpoint measurements, taken at 9 a.m. Eastern

time on 10 August 2016, given in ◦ F.

• Bloomington: T = 77; Td = 74

• Las Vegas: T = 83; Td = 41

• Reno: T = 58; Td = 34

• Chadron, Nebraska: T = 70; Td = 58

At which station is:

(a) the water vapor content the highest?

(b) the water vapor content the lowest?

(c) the water vapor capacity the highest?

(d) the water vapor capacity the lowest?

(e) RH the highest?

(f) RH the lowest?

6. What is the trend in relative humidity (increasing, decreasing, or stay the same) in

each of the following scenarios? (Hint: there is no need to calculate anything. Think

about how the dewpoint depression would change.

(a) Temperature is increasing; dewpoint is decreasing

(b) Temperature is decreasing; dewpoint is increasing

(c) Temperature is constant; dewpoint is increasing

(d) Temperature is increasing; dewpoint is constant

(e) Temperature is decreasing; dewpoint is decreasing

7. Using Eq. 1 and Fig. 1, calculate the relative humidity in each of the following sce-

narios. Temperatures and dewpoints are given in ◦ F. The answers are provided so

you can check your work. Depending on how many decimal places you use in the

mixing ratios, your answer should be within 2-3%.

(a) T = 92; Td = 75 (RH = 56%)

(b) T = 87; Td = 41 (RH = 18%)

(c) T = 52; Td = 44 (RH = 74%)

(d) T = 32; Td = 32 (RH = you should know this one!)

8. How do you think the relative humidity at a location would vary over the course

of a 24-hour period? Sketch a graph of relative humidity over one complete “diur-

nal” (day-night) cycle. Assume that the actual water vapor content (and thus, the

dewpoint) is unchanged, and no fronts pass, and no rainfall occurs.

9. What is the melting temperature of ice? What is the boiling temperature of liquid

water? In ◦ F? In ◦ C?

10. In which changes of state (remember, there are six: Fig. 6) do the H2 O molecules

gain energy from their surroundings? In which changes of state do the molecules

give up energy to their surroundings?

11. In which state do H2 O molecules possess the most energy? (Reminder: this question

is about one of the three states, not one of the six phase changes!)

12. Consider these temperature and dewpoint combinations, taken at sunset on a late

October day. At which stations might you expect dew on the ground at sunrise?

Where might you expect frost?

• City A: T = 62; Td = 51

• City B: T = 54; Td = 33

• City C: T = 61; Td = 24

• City D: T = 81; Td = 49

13. Of the different processes that can produce saturation of a parcel of air, which one is

most responsible for the formation of clouds that occur at the ground, such as fog?

What about the tall, deep, cumulnimbus clouds that occur on summer afternoons?

14. Why are cumulus clouds more frequently observed during the afternoon than at


15. Explain why most hydrometeors eventually fall to the ground. Make sure to use the

following words in your explanation: growth; updraft; heavy; gravity.

16. Consider Fig. 11, which depicts four separate vertical temperature profiles. Assume

that each of them was taken at a different location. What type of hydrometeors

would each profile produce? (Hint: just stick to the four major precipitation types

that occur in winter: rain, snow, sleet, and freezing rain.

17. Dewpoint temperatures will often rise dramatically in Alabama and Mississippi,

leading to increased cloud coverage and sometimes rainfall, when the wind is blow-

ing from which direction? Why is that the case?

Figure 11. Vertical temperature profiles that produce different precipitation types. From Weather Basics by
Balsama and Chaston.

18. Explain or interpret the bulleted statements in Section 6 based on the principles

discussed in this chapter. (No more than two or three sentences should be needed

for each.)