Fundamentals of Atmospheric Science

Summary and Final Tasks

Water vapor is a key atmospheric constituent that is essential for weather. There are many ways to express and measure the amount of atmospheric water vapor – specific humidity, water vapor mixing ratio, partial pressure, relative humidity, and dewpoint temperature – and these are all related and can be used interchangeably, although some provide more physical insight than others depending on the question being asked. Water’s most important characteristic in the atmosphere is that it can change phases between vapor, liquid, and ice. In the atmosphere, water is either in the vapor phase or trying to establish an equilibrium between vapor and liquid or vapor and ice. The equilibria conditions are given by the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, which shows that the equilibrium (a.k.a saturation) water vapor pressure depends only upon the temperature. Water phase changes pack a big energy punch and drive weather events. We can calculate the atmospheric temperature changes resulting from phase changes and then see that these temperature changes greatly affect the buoyancy of air parcels and therefore their vertical motion.

A good way to visualize atmospheric vertical structure and behavior is the skew-T diagram. With it, we can readily deduce atmospheric properties and predict what weather is likely to happen if solar heating causes some air near the surface to ascend. Some of the most important properties found using the soundings on the skew-T are the lifting condensation level, the potential temperature, and the equivalent potential temperature. The behavior of a typical sounding on the skew-T shows that the troposphere’s thermal structure is caused in large part by adiabatic ascent and descent, although we will see later that absorption and emission of infrared radiation by water vapor and carbon dioxide also have a hand in shaping the temperature vertical profile.

Reminder - Complete all of the Lesson 3 tasks!

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