Have you ever looked at the sky and found shapes in the clouds?
Clouds have a great effect on the weather and climate, but they can also be lovely (if they're not pouring rain on you). It's fun to sit and watch the clouds go by.
Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air in a particular spot. We usually use the term to mean relative humidity, the percentage of water vapor a certain volume of air is holding relative to the maximum amount it can contain. If the humidity today is 80%, it means that the air contains 80% of the total amount of water it can hold at that temperature. What will happen if the humidity increases to more than 100%? The excess water condenses and forms precipitation.
Since warm air can hold more water vapor than cool air, raising or lowering temperature can change air's relative humidity (Figure below). The temperature at which air becomes saturated with water is called the air's dew point. This term makes sense, because water condenses from the air as dew if the air cools down overnight and reaches 100% humidity.
This diagram shows the amount of water air can hold at different temperatures. The temperatures are given in degrees Celsius.
Water vapor is not visible unless it condenses to become a cloud. Water vapor condenses around a nucleus, such as dust, smoke, or a salt crystal. This forms a tiny liquid droplet. Billions of these water droplets together make a cloud.
Clouds form when air reaches its dew point. This can happen in two ways: (1) Air temperature stays the same but humidity increases. This is common in locations that are warm and humid. (2) Humidity remains the same, but temperature decreases. When the air cools enough to reach 100% humidity, water droplets form. Air cools when it comes into contact with a cold surface or when it rises.
Rising air creates clouds when it has been warmed at or near the ground level and then is pushed up over a mountain or mountain range or is thrust over a mass of cold, dense air.
Effects on Weather
Clouds have a big influence on weather:
- by preventing solar radiation from reaching the ground.
- by absorbing warmth that is re-emitted from the ground.
- as the source of precipitation.
When there are no clouds, there is less insulation. As a result, cloudless days can be extremely hot, and cloudless nights can be very cold. For this reason, cloudy days tend to have a lower range of temperatures than clear days.
Types of Clouds
Clouds are classified in several ways. The most common classification used today divides clouds into four separate cloud groups, which are determined by their altitude (Figure below).
The four cloud types and where they are found in the atmosphere.
- High clouds form from ice crystals where the air is extremely cold and can hold little water vapor. Cirrus, cirrostratus, and cirrocumulus are all names of high clouds.
- Middle clouds, including altocumulus and altostratus clouds, may be made of water droplets, ice crystals or both, depending on the air temperatures. Thick and broad altostratus clouds are gray or blue-gray. They often cover the entire sky and usually mean a large storm, bearing a lot of precipitation, is coming.
- Low clouds are nearly all water droplets. Stratus, stratocumulus, and nimbostratus clouds are common low clouds. Nimbostratus clouds are thick and dark. They bring steady rain or snow.
- Vertical clouds, clouds with the prefix "cumulo-," grow vertically instead of horizontally and have their bases at low altitude and their tops at high or middle altitude. Clouds grow vertically when strong air currents are rising upward.
Precipitating clouds are nimbus clouds.
- Radiation fog forms at night when skies are clear and the relative humidity is high. As the ground cools, the bottom layer of air cools below its dew point. Tule fog is an extreme form of radiation fog found in some regions.
- San Francisco, California, is famous for its summertime advection fog. Warm, moist Pacific Ocean air blows over the cold California current and cools below its dew point. Sea breezes bring the fog onshore.
- Steam fog appears in autumn when cool air moves over a warm lake. Water evaporates from the lake surface and condenses as it cools, appearing like steam.
- Warm humid air travels up a hillside and cools below its dew point to create upslope fog.
(a) Tule fog in the Central Valley of California. (b) Advection fog in San Francisco. (c) Steam fog over a lake. (d) Upslope fog in Teresópolis city, Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil.
Fog levels are declining along the California coast as climate warms. The change in fog may have big ecological changes for the state.
Science Friday: Growing Snowflakes in a Bottle
Ever dreamed about making your own snowflakes? It turns out you can, using materials that you can easily obtain. In this video by Science Friday, physicist Ken Libbrecht describes how to build your own snowflake in a plastic bottle.
- Air reaches its dew point when humidity increases or temperature decreases. Water droplets form when the air reaches 100% humidity.
- Clouds block solar radiation, absorb heat from the ground and are the source of snow and rain.
- Fog forms when there is a difference in temperature between the land and the air.
- Imagine a place with a daytime temperature of 45 degrees F. How will the nighttime temperature change if the sky is cloudy? How will it change if the sky is clear?
- What set of conditions causes tule fog?
- The low temperature a few degrees above freezing last night. Why is your car covered with frost this morning?
Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.
- How are clouds categorized?
- What are the four main cloud types?
- Where do cirrus clouds form and what are they made of?
- What do cirrus clouds indicate about the weather?
- What do cumulus clouds look like? Where do they form?
- What are stratiform clouds? Where do they form?
- What are mid- and high-level stratus clouds called?
- What do nimboform clouds do? What are the two common types?
- What is unique about cumulonimbus clouds?