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CLOUD PHYSICS

Cloud physics is the study of the physical processes that lead to the formation, growth and
precipitation of clouds. Clouds consist of microscopic droplets of liquid water (warm clouds), tiny crystals
of ice (cold clouds), or both (mixed phase clouds). Cloud droplets initially form by the condensation of
water vapor onto condensation nuclei when the supersaturation of air exceeds a critical value according to
Köhler theory.
In warm clouds, larger cloud droplets fall at a higher terminal velocity because the drag force on
smaller droplets is larger than on large droplets. The large droplet can then collide with small droplet and
combine to form even larger drops. When the drops become large enough so that the acceleration due to
gravity is much larger than the acceleration due to drag, the drops can fall to the earth as precipitation.

Formation of Clouds

Rising packets of moist air


As water evaporates from an area of the earth surface, the air over that area becomes moist. Moist
air is lighter than the surrounding dry air, creating an unstable situation. When enough moist air has
accumulated, all the moist air rises as a single packet, without mixing with the surrounding air. As more
moist air forms along the surface, the process repeats, resulting in a series of discrete packets of moist air
rising to form clouds.

Supersaturation
The amount of water that can exist as vapor in a given volume increases with the temperature.
When the amount of water vapor is in equilibrium above a flat surface of water the level of vapor pressure
is called saturation and the relative humidity is 100%. If the relative humidity becomes greater than 100%,
it is called supersaturated. Since the saturation vapor pressure is proportional to temperature, cold air has
a lower saturation point than warm air. The difference between these values is the basis for the formation
of clouds.

Supercooling
Water droplets commonly remain as liquid water and do not freeze, even well below 0 °C (32 °F),
because of the high surface tension of each microdroplet, which prevents them from expanding to form
larger ice crystals. Without ice nuclei supercooled water droplets can exist down to about −40 °C
(−40 °F), at which point they will spontaneously freeze.

Collision-coalescence
One theory explaining how the behavior of individual droplets leads to the formation of clouds is
the collision-coalescence process. Droplets suspended in the air will interact with each other, either by
colliding and bouncing off each other or by combining to form a larger droplet.
Eventually, the droplets become large enough that they fall to the earth as precipitation. The
collision-coalescence process does not make up a significant part of cloud formation as water droplets have
a relatively high surface tension.

Bergeron process
The primary mechanism for the formation of ice clouds was discovered by Tor Bergeron. The
Bergeron process notes that the saturation vapor pressure of water, or how much water vapor a given
volume can hold, depends on what the vapor is interacting with. Specifically, the saturation vapor pressure
with respect to ice is lower than the saturation vapor pressure with respect to water.

Dynamic phase hypothesis


The second critical point in the formation of clouds is their dependence on updrafts. As particles
group together to form water droplets, they will quickly be pulled down to earth by the force of gravity.
The droplets would quickly dissipate and the cloud will never form. However, if warm air interacts with
cold air, an updraft can form.

Cloud Classification
Clouds are classified according to the height at which they are found, and their shape or
appearance. There are three basic categories based on physical structure and process of formation.
1. Cirriform clouds are high, thin and wispy, and are seen most extensively along the leading
edges of organized weather disturbances.

2. Stratiform clouds appear as extensive sheet-like layers, ranging from thin to moderately thick
with some vertical development. They are mostly the product of large scale lift of stable air.

3. Cumuliform clouds are formed mostly into localized heaps, rolls and/or ripples ranging from
very small cloudlets of limited convection in slightly unstable air to very large towering free
convective buildups when the airmass is very unstable.

4. Clouds of limited convection that show a mix of cumuliform and stratiform characteristics are
often grouped into a fourth category, stratocumuliform. These categories are cross-classified
by high, middle, low, and vertical altitude ranges into ten genus types.
Atmospheric Stability
The stability of the atmosphere depends on its ability to resist vertical motion. A stable
atmosphere makes vertical movement difficult, and small vertical disturbances dampen out and disappear.

In an unstable atmosphere, small vertical air movements tend to become larger, resulting in
turbulent airflow and convective activity. Instability can lead to significant turbulence, extensive vertical
clouds, and severe weather.

Atmospheric instability is a condition where the Earth's atmosphere is generally considered to be


unstable and as a result the weather is subject to a high degree of variability through distance and time.

Atmospheric stability is a measure of the atmosphere's tendency to encourage or deter vertical


motion, and vertical motion is directly correlated to different types of weather systems and their severity.

In unstable conditions, a lifted parcel of air will be warmer than the surrounding air at altitude.
Because it is warmer, it is less dense and is prone to further ascent.
Conditional Instability

If you cause dry air to rise, its temperature will drop due to adiabatic expansion. This vertical
temperature gradient is called the dry adiabatic lapse rate. When the temperature gradient becomes
sharper than this (i.e. the temperature drops sharply as altitude increases), the atmosphere becomes
unstable.

On the other hand, if you cause air saturated with water vapor to rise as the temperature falls the
water vapor condenses and lets off heat, so the temperature gradient becomes smaller. This is called the
moist adiabatic lapse rate.

In other words, saturated air becomes unstable under a smaller temperature gradient than dry air.
Conditions with a vertical temperature distribution under which both dry and saturated air are stable are
called absolutely stable, and conditions that cause instability for both dry and saturated air are called
absolutely unstable, and conditions that cause instability in saturated air but not dry air are called
conditionally unstable.

The lower layer of the atmosphere is in a state of conditional instability, so when water vapor
reaches saturation point, it becomes unstable, and cumulus and cumulonimbus occur.