Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What Exactly Is The Dew Point?

The dew point is a temperature at which the air becomes saturated. But as most weather definitions go, this is too simple of a definition.

Prepare yourself, what we are about to delve into actually takes some thinking. Why? Because the concept of moisture in our atmosphere, how we measure it, and how it changes, is pretty complex. Sorry about that.

However, you just may learn something that will be on Jeopardy, so let's dig in.

(This is a sling psychrometer (sigh-crom-a-ter) which is used to measure important atmospheric data, which then can be used to calculate the dew point)

First of all, it is important to realize that the dew point temperature is just that, a temperature. But the air temperature and dew point temperature are two very different things. The dew point temperature is the point at which the air must be cooled in order for the the air mass to become saturated (assuming there is no drastic change in pressure or moisture content).

So, when the air temperature and dew point are equal, does that mean it rains or snows? Not necessarily, because the process of forming rain is more complex. Also, keep in mind that rain falls from above. So, while the surface air may be saturated, that doesn't mean the air above you is saturated. In fact, before rain develops, there needs to be a cloud, and the process of cloud formation depends upon more than just saturated air. Such factors could be the type and size of aerosols which water vapor can condense upon. These aerosols are called cloud condensation nuclei (CCN). You see, it is not as simple as saying "if you have saturation, then you have a cloud or rain drop." However, it is the first step, and that's why dew point and saturation play a close role in forecasting rain.

The dew point is used a lot by TV meteorologists and seen on most current weather conditions because it's a great indicator of the moisture content of the air, or humidity. The higher the dew point temperature, the higher the humidity. Okay, this is where some thinking comes in, because the relative humidity and dew point both describe the moisture content of the air, yet they are different at the same time.

About Relative Humidity:
One thing you'll notice is that when the air temperature is close to the dew point, the relative humidity is high (often 80% or greater). But the relative humidity is "relative"or dependent. Relative humidity is dependent upon the temperature. So, if the temperature changes, the relative humidity will change. Dew point is a better "absolute" measure of the air's moisture content. Here's a good example of why:

Temperature Dew Point Relative Humidity
90 80 = 67%
100 80 = 47%
110 80 = 33%

From this table above, look at the relative humidity of 33%. Looks like a comfortable relative humidity, right?

Probably not. Sticky, sultry and oppressive are appropriate adjectives for 110 degree heat with an 80 degree dew point But why is the relative humidity so low? Because relative to that hot temperature of 110 degrees, the air is no where near saturation. Remember, we would have to cool the air down to 80 degrees (with no pressure change) in order to saturate that air mass (remember that's the definition of dew point). That's a 30 degree cooling! If our air temperature is 90 degrees, now the air is 67% saturated and we only have to cool the air 10 degrees to reach saturation. What if the air temperature was 80 degrees and the dew point was 80 degrees? The air is saturated, it 100% relative humidity and it is likely that you would be experiencing either rain, snow, mist or fog.

So, relative humidity is just that...relative, meaning it depends. It depends on the temperature of the air. Dew point temperature is a better "absolute" measure of moisture in the air.

In general, I consider dew points above 70 degrees F very uncomfortable. Most people consider dew points near 55 degrees F and higher to be necessary for severe weather. That's just a guideline though.

Why does cooling the air to the dew point cause saturation?

The cooler the air, the less energy it has. It takes energy for molecules to break free of the liquid bonds (or solid in the case of ice). So if you cool the air, you're reducing the energy the molecules need to escape the liquid bonds and become a gas. In turn, this encourages condensation. If you were to heat the air, you're adding energy and encouraging evaporation.

This doesn't quite explain why cooling to the dew point will cause saturation. In order to understand saturation, first understand that water in our atmosphere is constantly evaporating and condensing. H2O molecules are constantly coursing back and forth from a liquid to a gas and vice versa. What is important to the growth or decay of a water droplet is which process is dominant. For example, if you had 10,000 molecules evaporating and 1,000 molecule condensing, then evaporation is dominating and a rain drop or ice crystal is not likely to form. But when you cool the air, you reduce the energy molecules need to evaporate. At some point 5,000 molecules are condensing and 5,000 molecules are evaporating. The temperature at which this occurs, is called the dew point. It's the point at which condensation and evaporation are equal. Or you could consider it the temperature at which condensation has a chance to dominate over evaporation. And the reason that's important is because when condensation dominates over evaporation, it's finally possible to form a rain drop or ice crystal.

I mentioned several times about cooling the "air temperature", I am using the air temperature to approximate the temperature of the water vapor in the air. Although air is made of Nitrogen, Oxygen, water vapor and other stuff, we can make the assumption that the "air temperature" is also the temperature of the water droplet. It's kind of like trying to separate the temperature of the water in tomato soup from the temperature of the entire bowl of tomato soup. For all practical purposes, the temperature of the water is probably the same as the temperature of the entire soup. I mention this because it's not the temperature of the air as much as it is the temperature of the water vapor that is important

Heavy rainfall in Rameswaram region.

For the past 3 days, it's unusually heavy rain over Rameswaram region. Recorded around 40cm in 3 days. Even a cloud burst of 19cm on 15-Dec-08.
Almost there is no such rain forecast thru GFS models and no visible evidence in Satellite images. Purely a local disturbance.
Satellite pic shows...

Still lot's of activity over the South-Arabian sea in the form of stable "97A".
And cloud activity can also be seen over the South-BAY. There's a GFS suggestion of LOW pressure formation over that area and moving in a WEST direction.
Night was mild around 24 degrees and Now (3:45PM) the temperature is gradually reducing. Tonight we might get up to 22 degrees. From tomorrow morning there'll be DEW.