Mon., Oct. 29, 2012

A couple of songs from Vampire Weekend  before class "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" and "M79".

The 1S1P reports on ozone have been graded and were returned in class today.  I hope to have at least one new Assignment #3 topic online by class on Wednesday this week.

The Experiment #3 reports were collected today.  It takes a week or so to get them graded, so you'll probably get them back by next Wednesday.

There are two processes capable of quickly turning cloud droplets into precipitation size particles.  We covered the first of these, the collision coalescence process, last Friday.  Today we will look at the much more interesting ice crystal process.  It works in cold clouds, clouds that contain ice crystals. 

The bottom of the thunderstorm, Point 1, is warm enough (warmer than freezing) to just contain water droplets.  The top of the thunderstorm, Point 2, is colder than -40 F (which, coincidentally, is equal to -40 C) and just contains ice crystals.  The interesting part of the thunderstorm and the nimbostratus cloud is the middle part, Point 3, that contains both supercooled water droplets (water that has been cooled to below freezing but hasn't frozen) and ice crystals.  This is called the mixed phase region.  This is where the ice crystal process will be able to produce precipitation.  This is also where the electrical charge that results in lightning is created.

The supercooled water droplets aren't able to freeze even though they have been cooled below freezing.  At Point 4 we see this is because it is much easier for small droplets of water to freeze onto an ice crystal nucleus or for water vapor to be deposited onto an ice crystal nucleus (just like it is easier for water vapor to condense onto condensation nuclei rather than condensing and forming a small droplet of pure water).  Not just any material will work as an ice nucleus however.  The material must have a crystalline structure that is like that of ice.  There just aren't very many materials with this property and as a result ice crystal nuclei are rather scarce.

Here are a couple of demonstrations involving supercooled water that I showed in class.  In the first demonstration, some supercooled water (cooled to -6 F (-21 C)) is poured into a glass bowl sitting at room temperature.  Just pouring the water into the bowl is enough of a "disturbance" to cause the supercooled water to freeze.  Just bumping a bottle of supercooled water in the second video is enough to cause the water to freeze.

We'll see next why or how the ice crystal process works, this is the "tricky" part.  It's a 3-step process.

The first figure above (see p.101 in the photocopied Class Notes) shows a water droplet in equilibrium with its surroundings.  The droplet is evaporating (the 3 blue arrows in the figure).  The rate of evaporation will depend on the temperature of the water droplet.  There will be some evaporation even from a droplet that is very cold. 

The droplet is surrounded by air that is saturated with water vapor (the droplet is inside a cloud where the relative humidity is 100%).  This means there is enough water vapor to be able to supply 3 arrows of condensation.  Because the droplet loses and gains water vapor at equal rates it doesn't grow or shrink.

This figure shows what is required for an ice crystal (at the same temperature) to be in equilibrium with its surroundings.  First, the ice crystal won't evaporate as rapidly as the water droplet (only 1 arrow is shown).  Going from ice to water vapor is a bigger "jump" than going from water to water vapor.  There won't be as many ice molecules with enough energy to make that jump.  A sort of analogous situation is shown in the figure below.  The class instructor could and most of the people in the room could jump from the floor to the top of a 10 or 12 inch tall box.  It would be much tougher to jump to the top of the table (maybe 30 inches off the ground) or the podium (maybe 36 inches).  There wouldn't be as many people able to do that.  Guess what I might be trying this weekend in my backyard.

To be in equilibrium the ice crystal only needs 1 arrow of condensation.  There doesn't need to be as much water vapor in the air surrounding the ice crystal to supply this lower rate of condensation. 

Now what happens in the mixed phase region of a cold cloud is that ice crystals find themselves in the very moist surroundings needed for water droplet equilibrium. This is shown below.

The water droplet is in equilibrium (3 arrows of evaporation and 3 arrows of condensation) with the surroundings.  The ice crystal is evaporating more slowly than the water droplet.  Because the ice crystal is in the same surroundings as the water droplet water vapor will be condensing onto the ice crystal at the same rate as onto the water droplet.  The ice crystal isn't in equilibrium, condensation (3 arrows) exceeds evaporation (1 arrow) and the ice crystal will grow.  That's what makes the ice crystal process work.

The equal rates of condensation are shown in the figure below using the earlier analogy.

Most everyone can manage to make the big or the small jump down.

Now we will see what can happen once the ice crystal has had a chance to grow a little bit.

Once an ice crystal has grown a little bit it becomes a snow crystal (this figure is on p. 102 in the photocopied classnotes).  Snow crystals can have a variety of shapes (plates, dendrites, columns, needles, etc.; these are called crystal habits) depending on the conditions (temperature and moisture) in the cloud.  Dendrites are the most common because they form where there is the most moisture available for growth.  With more raw material available it makes sense there would be more of this particular snow crystal shape.

Here are some actual photographs of snow crystals (taken with a microscope).  Snow crystals are usually 100 or a few 100s of micrometers in diameter (tenths of a millimeter in diameter).  The different shapes are called "habits".

You'll find some much better photographs and a pile of addtional information about snow crystals at

A variety of things can happen once a snow crystal forms.  First it can break into pieces, then each of the pieces can grow into a new snow crystal.  Because snow crystals are otherwise in rather short supply, ice crystal multiplication is a way of increasing the amount of precipitation that ultimately falls from the cloud.


Several snow crystals can collide and stick together to form a snowflake.  Snow crystals are small, a few tenths of a millimeter across.  Snowflakes can be much larger and are made up of many snow crystals stuck together.  The sticking together or clumping together of snow crystals is called aggregation (I frequently forget the name of this process and don't expect you to remember it either).

The next process and particle are something that I hope you will remember.

Snow crystals can collide with supercooled water droplets.  The water droplets may stick and freeze to the snow crystal.  This process is called riming or accretion (note this isn't called collision coalescence even though it is the same idea).  If a snow crystal collides with enough water droplets it can be completely covered with ice.  The resulting particle is called graupel.  Graupel is sometimes mistaken for hail and is called soft hail or snow pellets.  Rime ice has a frosty milky white appearance.  A graupel particle resembles a miniature snow ball.  Or smaller finer grained version of the shaved ice in a "snow cone."   Graupel particles often serve as the nucleus for a hailstone. 

This figure gives you an idea of how hail forms.

In the figure above a hailstone starts with a graupel particle (Pt. 1, colored green to represent rime ice).  The graupel falls or gets carried into a part of the cloud where it collides with a large number of supercooled water droplets which stick to the graupel but don't immediately freeze.  The graupel gets coated with a layer of water (blue) at Pt. 2.  The particle then moves into a colder part of the cloud and the water layer freeze producing a layer of clear ice (the clear ice, colored violet, has a distinctly different appearance from the milky white rime ice), Pt. 3.  In Tucson this is often the only example of hail that you will see: a graupel particle core with a single layer of clear ice.

Hail that falls to the ground in Tucson usually just has a graupel core and a single layer of clear ice.  In the severe thunderstorms in the Central Plains, the hailstone can pick up additional layers of rime ice and clear ice and hailstones can be
composed of many alternating layers of rime and clear ice.  An  unusually large hailstone (around 3 inches in diameter) has been cut in half to show (below) the different layers of ice.  The picture below is close to actual size.  If something like this were to hit you in the head it would split your skull open.  Here's some pretty good video of a hailstorm in Phoenix.

Hail is produced in strong thunderstorms with tilted updrafts.  You would never see hail (or graupel) falling from a nimbostratus cloud.  A new record was apparently set for a large hailstone in Hawaii in March of this year.  Hawaii is an unusual place for hail this large to be found.

The growing hailstone can fall back into the updraft (rather than falling out of the cloud) and be carried back up toward the top of the cloud.  In this way the hailstone can complete several cycles through the interior of the cloud.  The article above mentions a supercell thunderstorm.  We will discuss these later in the semester.

Finally on p. 103 in the ClassNotes are illustrations of some of the things that can happen once a precipitation particle falls from a cloud.  I've split this into two groups for clarity.

Essentially all the rain that falls in Tucson is produced by the ice crystal process.  The left figure above shows how this happens.  A falling graupel particle or a snow flake moves into warmer air and melts.  The resulting drops of water fall the rest of the way to the ground and would be called RAIN. 

In the middle picture graupel particles can survive the trip to the ground without melting even in the summer.  Many people on the ground would call this hail but that wouldn't be quite right.  Graupel is less common in the winter because it comes from thunderstorms and they don't form very often in the winter.  Snow can survive the trip to the ground in the winter but not the summer.

Sometimes the falling raindrops will evaporate before reaching the ground.  This is called VIRGA and is pretty common early in the summer thunderstorm season in Arizona when the air is still pretty dry.  Lightning that comes from thunderstorms that aren't producing much precipitation is called "dry lightning" and often starts brush fires.

Rain will sometimes freeze before reaching the ground.  The resulting particle of clear ice is called SLEET.  FREEZING RAIN by contrast only freezes once it reaches the ground.  Everything on the ground (the image shows a car) can get coated with a thick layer of ice.  It is nearly impossible to drive during one of these "ice storms."  Sometimes the coating of ice is heavy enough that branches on trees are broken and power lines are brought down.  It sometimes takes several days for power to be restored.