Fundamentals of Atmospheric Science

Summary and Final Tasks


Clouds are shaped and sized by atmospheric motions and mixing with the surrounding air and are composed of either liquid or ice drops depending on their environmental temperature. The basic shapes are stratus or cumulus or mixtures of the two; the altitudes define low, middle, and high clouds.

Understanding clouds requires looking at individual cloud drops through a microscope. Cloud drops form when there is sufficient moisture, aerosol to act as Cloud Condensation Nuclei (CCN), and cooling air. This cooling air becomes supersaturated with water vapor by radiative cooling (e.g., valley fog), uplift (e.g., cumulus convection), or mixing (e.g., contrail). Each CCN particle requires supersaturation to grow into a cloud drop as a competition takes place between a curvature effect (tiny particles have higher saturation vapor pressure than flat surfaces) that inhibits water uptake, while a solute effect (the particle dissolving in liquid water) enhances water uptake. Once the atmosphere has cooled enough to achieve supersaturation greater than the critical supersaturation for a CCN particle, that particle can take on enough water to continue growing large enough to become a cloud drop.

Initially, the drop grows by vapor deposition, but this process slows down as the square root of time, so that the formation of raindrops is not possible within the typical 30-minute lifetime of a cloud. Other processes are at work. In a warm cloud, where all the drops are liquid, collisions and coalescence of drops, with occasional breakup, exponentially increases the size of the drops as they fall. In a cold cloud, precipitation drops can grow either by riming of ice with supercooled liquid drops or by collisions and aggregation of ice particles or by vapor deposition from supercooled liquid to ice.

Reminder - Complete all of the Lesson 5 tasks!

You have reached the end of Lesson 5! Double-check that you have completed all of the activities before you begin Lesson 6.