Though people are quite accustomed to experiencing weather—sunshine and rain, wind and storms, hot and cold, fair days and foul—most have little idea how weather originates or even really what weather is. In fact, it is a condition of the atmosphere produced by one or more of six factors: air temperature, air pressure, humidity in the air, the density and variety of cloud cover, the amount and type of precipitation, and the speed and direction of the wind. Those six variables can produce the sunny, beautiful days that everyone treasures; or they can conspire to create the sort of rainy, windy, and cold day that some people despise and others (especially creative types, who do not have to be out in the elements) adore. The variables of weather also can align to manifest in the form of brutal storms, including hurricanes and tornadoes. Yet as complex as weather is, its behavior can still be forecast—with at least some accuracy—and sometimes even manipulated.
HOW IT WORKS
Introduction to Weather
Weather and climate are not the same thing: weather is the condition of the atmosphere at any given time and place, while climate is the pattern of weather conditions in a particular region over an extended period. We do not speak therefore of “forecasting climate ” though it is possible, on the basis of long-term climate patterns, to make some predictions concerning future climatic trends, (Climate is discussed in a separate essay.)
Nevertheless, the type of atmospheric prediction that applies much more to our daily lives is weather forecasting. The latter is the work of meteorologists, or scientists involved in studying the atmosphere and weather and in making weather predictions. In the 1970s most local television news programs still included a “weatherman” on their lineup. This was a television personality, much like the anchors and the specialists in sports or other topics, whose job it was to report the weather. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, most stations and networks changed their designation of weatherman to that of meteorologist.
In part this change had to do with gender politics, since the title weatherman seemed sexist but weatherman or weatherperson sounded a bit absurd. On the other hand, it also was made in recognition of the work that weather forecasters perform: unlike ordinary reporters, they are not so much journalists as they are scientists. (Though a nice smile, charming personality, and good looks never hurt any TV meteorologist!) And while a meteorologist, like every member of the TV news team, reports what has happened— for instance, a record snowfall—his or her job also is concerned heavily with explaining what will happen.
As we have noted, weather is determined by six factors, all of which involve the atmosphere, and several of which also relate to water in the atmosphere. These factors are as follows:
• Air temperature
* Air pressure
* Cloud cover
The role of air temperature in weather is fairly obvious, since that is one factor of which we are used to taking note on a regular basis. Air pressure, though much less familiar to most of us, has a powerful influence on air currents, and air pressure is linked closely with wind. Likewise, there are clear linkages among humidity (moisture in the air), the amount and type of cloud cover (formed, of course, from moisture in the air), and the amount and type of precipitation, which begins to fall when the clouds are saturated with moisture.
What makes the weather?
So much for the factors involved in weather, which go into making the weather we experience at a given time. But if we want to search for the ultimate causes behind the weather, we have to look toward larger phenomena: the Sun and Earth as well as Earth’s surface and atmosphere and the interactions among all of these factors.
At the heart of weather is the Sun and the energy it transmits to Earth. As discussed in Energy and Earth, the Sun sends out vast quantities of energy, only a small portion of which comes anywhere near Earth—and a much smaller portion reaches the surface of the planet as usable energy. Yet that “tiny” amount, which is the vast majority of the energy available to Earth in any form, is enough to light and warm the planet and to drive a variety of processes in the biosphere and atmosphere.
Moving water through the atmosphere
The Sun’s most direct and obvious influence on weather is its impact on temperature, but this is only one aspect of a larger and more complex picture. As discussed in the essay Evapotranspiration and Precipitation, differences in temperature—a result, primarily, of the Sun’s heat—make possible the conditions for both evaporation and transpiration, or the loss of moisture from living organisms to the atmosphere.
The amount of water that evaporates into the atmosphere in a given area is its humidity, which exerts a powerful impact on the human experience of weather. As most people who have traveled widely will attest, high temperatures in a dry climate, such as that of the American Southwest, are far easier to endure than equally high temperatures (or even lower ones) in Florida or other parts of the Deep South, a much more humid region.
As water moves from Earth’s surface into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration (a combination of evaporation and the related process of transpiration), the air through which it passes becomes increasingly cooler. Eventually, the vaporized water comes to an altitude at which the air around it is cold enough to cause condensation—that is, the formation of a liquid. When enough vapor has condensed into tiny droplets of water, or tiny ice crystals, the result is the formation of clouds.
Clouds, discussed in detail within the context of Evapotranspiration and Precipitation, are integral to the formation of weather patterns, which is why TV meteorologists almost always show their audiences satellite maps illustrating cloud movements. Not only do clouds reflect sunlight into space, meaning that a sufficient accumulation of cloud cover will bring about a decrease in temperature, but clouds also manufacture precipitation. Forms of precipitation include rain in all its variations, from a fine mist to a downpour, as well as snow, sleet, and hail.
Air Pressure and Wind
We have seen how the Sun affects the movement of water through the atmosphere, thus driving three of the six key weather factors we named earlier: humidity, cloud cover, and precipitation. In addition to its effect on these factors and on temperature itself, the Sun and its energy are also behind the other two important factors—air pressure and the movement of air through the atmosphere, that is, winds.
Because it does not change as frequently or as dramatically as temperature (fortunately!)^ air pressure is something of which we are hardly aware. But if a person accustomed to the sea-level air pressure of a place such as New York City suddenly had to travel to a high-altitude locale such as Denver, Colorado, he or she immediately would become aware of the difficulty in breathing and the other changes that attend a change in pressure.
For instance, the higher the altitude (and, hence, the lower the air pressure), the lower the temperature at which water boils. For this reason, cake mixes and similar products have special instructions for kitchens at high altitudes. Taken to an extreme, this means that with absolutely no pressure, liquid could boil—that is, turn into a vapor—at extremely low temperatures. This is one of” the reasons, along with lack of oxygen and the presence of harmful rays, that an astronaut wears a protective suit; without it, the pressure-less environment of space would cause a person’s blood to boil!
In the English system, normal atmospheric pressure at sea level is 14.7 lb. per sq. in., or 1.013 X 10* pascals (Pa) in the metric or SI (Scientific International) system. This amount of pressure constitutes a unit In its own right, an atmosphere (atm). Atmospheric pressure, however, usually Is measured in terms of the bar, an SI unit equal to 105 Pa. Thus, 1 atm = 1,013 bars. Meteorologists often use the millibar (mb), which, as Its name Implies, is equal to 0.001 bars—roughly 1/1,000 of ordinary air pressure at sea level.
Wind: from high pressure to low
Heat from the Sun does not fall evenly on all places on Earth. Aside from the obvious fact that it makes a limited impact on polar regions, there are the differences in color and texture between various areas, even in the most tropical latitudes—that Is, those closest to the direct path of sunlight. For example, soil, since It is almost always darker than water, tends to attract more sunlight than bodies of water do.
When an area is heated, the air above It heats up as well, and this makes that region of air less dense. As a result, the air rises, a phenomenon known as convection. Convection currents also carry other masses of air downward from the upper atmosphere toward Earth’s surface. In regions where warm air moves upward, the atmospheric pressure tends to be low, whereas downward air movements are associated with higher atmospheric pressures.
These higher or lower atmospheric pressures can be measured by a barometer, an instrument that registers pressure just as a thermometer measures temperature. The fact that there are differences in pressure between areas brings about wind, which Is the movement of air from a region of high pressure to one of lower pressure. [Later In this essay, we discuss a way to “create” wind and thus test this statement.)
Other Influences on Weather
We have focused primarily on the influence that the Sun and its energy exerts on weather, but it should be noted that certain aspects of Earth itself determine weather patterns. Among these factors, as noted earlier, are color and texture, whereby certain places on the planet are more apt to receive the Sun’s energy than others.
Also important is Earth’s position in space. First of all, there is the tilt of its axis relative to the plane of its rotation around the Sun, which accounts for the seasons. In addition, the planet follows an elliptical, or oval-shaped, orbital pattern around the Sun, which means that there are certain times when the planet is closer to the Sun and its energy than at others.
Earth’s rotation brings about complicated patterns of movement on the part of air masses heated at the equator. If the planet were not rotating, these masses of air would simply move from the equator toward the poles, where they would be cooled. Because the planet is rotating, however, the movement of global winds is much more complex and is characterized by circular patterns known as cells.
In addition to these factors that relate to the planet’s movement in space, there is also the matter of irregularities on Earth’s surface. An example of this is the effect mountains can have on cloud movements, creating a perpetually rainy climate on one side and a dry “rain shadow” on the other. Rain shadows are discussed in the essay on Mountains.
Earlier we discussed the fact that wind results from differences in pressure. This is a statement you can test for yourself—and perhaps you already have, without knowing it. Suppose you are in a room where the heat is on too high and there is no way to adjust the thermostat. Outside the air is cold, so you open a window, hoping to cool down the room. Does it do the trick? Not likely. But if you open the door leading from the room to the hallway, a nice cool breeze will blow through. You have, in effect, created wind or at least manipulated the conditions to make wind possible.
With the door closed, the room constitutes an area of high pressure in comparison with the area outside the window. Once the window alone is opened, it is theoretically possible for air to flow into the room, but that does not mean the air actually will flow. The reason is that fluids such as air—whether in a room or in the sky— tend to move from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. Because the room is of relatively high pressure compared with the outside, there is no reason for the air to move into the room.
Furthermore, in line with the second law of thermodynamics (see Energy and Earth), the flow of heat always will be from an area of relatively high temperature to one of relatively low temperature. Therefore, if there is going to be any air movement in this situation, it will have to be movement of hot air out of the room rather than cool air into the room. (Even an air conditioner works by taking out the heat, not by bringing in “cold”—even though we may perceive it otherwise,)
In the case of the overheated room, there is only one way to solve the problem: by opening the door into the hallway, or whatever else lies outside the door. As soon as the door is opened, the relatively high-pressure air of the room flows into the relatively low-pressure area of the hallway, just as the laws of physics say it should. This is exactly the same principle whereby wind blows from high-pressure regions into low pressure ones. By setting up a cross-draft, in effect, we have “created” wind.
Thunderstorms and Worse
Wind and clouds combined with rain (discussed, like clouds, in Evapotranspiration and Precipitation) and a few other factors create a thunderstorm. Those other factors, of course, are lightning and that key difference between an ordinary storm and a thunderstorm: thunder.
Inside a thunderstorm are updrafts and downdrafts of air, which bring about a buildup of static electric charges within the thunderstorm clouds. Over time, there is a large buildup of separate electric charges inside the cloud, with positive charges near the top and negative charges in the middle. This separation of charges creates huge voltage differences, which require something to equalize them: a bolt of lightning, which suddenly passes between the areas of differing charge.
Lightning produces a spark, which heats the air in an instant to more than 54,00Q°F (30,000°C). As a result, the molecules of air and moisture in the cloud experience an extremely sudden expansion, and this expansion is accompanied by a release of energy. The energy In this situation takes the form of sound, which we experience as thunder.
Anatomy of a thunderstorm
Let us go back now to the point when the thunderstorm came into being. First solar energy, or some other influence, such as the presence of a mountain range, causes water to enter the atmosphere as vapor. As this air rises, it expands and cools, eventually condensing and coalescing to form a cloud. The cloud thus formed is a cumulus cloud, which may appear as the puffy, benign cloud of a clear summer’s day or may turn into a cumulonimbus—a thunderstorm—cloud.
On its way to becoming a thunder cloud, a cumulus undergoes a transformation into a convective cloud, or one formed by convection. It may never become a thunder cloud at all, assuming that vertical movement stops, in which case fair weather prevails. But if the atmosphere is unstable, meaning that the air temperature drops rapidly with altitude, packets of air that begin rising and cooling inevitably will be warmer than the air around them. The rising air packet is like a balloon, weighing less per unit of volume than the surrounding area, and thus it continues to rise.
As we have noted, in order to evaporate, water needs to receive a certain infusion of energy, or heat, from the Sun. Once it condenses and forms a cloud, it releases that heat, warming the cloud and causing It to rise still higher. As long as these updrafts can support the cloud, It continues to grow and to rise, until, in the case of a thunderstorm, It reaches very great atmospheric heights—about 40,000 ft. (12 km) above the surface. In the course of rising and growing, large raindrops and hailstones can form.
Two types of thunderstorm
Over western Florida and other areas around the Gulf of Mexico, thunderstorms grow as we have described, with cumulus clouds rising and cooling. These are called air-mass storms. Once the cloud reaches a certain point of moisture saturation, rain begins to fall from the upper part of the cloud, producing precipitation and with it downdrafts. Because the downdraft in such a situation Is usually stronger than the updraft, the cloud is likely to dissipate before the thunderstorm has caused much damage. Certainly there will be rain showers, thunder, and lightning, but the storm is unlikely to produce extreme wind damage or hail.
On the other hand, parts of the central and eastern United States are prone to what are called frontal thunderstorms, and these storms are much more severe. They typically form just ahead of a cold air mass, or cold front. The cold air, much more dense than the warm, humid, and unstable air of the cloud system, pushes the clouds ahead of it, which rise and form convective clouds. Eventually, these clouds produce rain, which causes downdrafts. But instead of dissipating the storm’s impact (as in the case of the air-mass storm), the downdrafts only increase its intensity.
In a frontal thunderstorm, strong down-drafts hit the ground, spreading out and sending more warm humid air rising into the storm. This gives the storm clouds more latent heat, increasing the updrafts, which in turn gives more speed to the wind and improves the chances of heavy rain or even hail. The latter can appear even in summertime or in warm climates, since the cloud forms at a great height.
When ice crystals form in the cloud, the updrafts and downdrafts circulate them back and forth, and as this happens, the crystals pick up more and more moisture. Eventually, tiny ice crystals gather rainwater around them, until they have become hailstones. Depending on the conditions of the storm, hailstones can become extremely large—as big as 5.5 in. (14 cm) in diameter.
Some forms of weather make thunderstorms seem minor by comparison. Among these are tornadoes, a rapidly spinning column of air formed in a severe thunderstorm. The vortex, or rotating center, of the column, forms inside the storm cloud and begins to grow downward until It touches Earth’s surface. The United States Is particularly prone to tornadoes, owing to specific factors of its location and its larger climate patterns, (See Climate for more about the distinction between weather and climate.)
The type of severe frontal thunderstorm that can produce a tornado typically is associated with an extremely unstable atmosphere and with moving systems of low pressure, which bring masses of cold air into contact with warmer, more humid air masses. It so happens that such storms occur frequently across a wide swath of North America, from the plains states to the eastern seaboard (i.e., more or less from Kansas to North Carolina) during a period from about June to October each year.
as clouds rise and grown, ice crystals form and gather rainwater around them until. they become hailstones. depending on the conditions of the storm, hailstones can grow extremely large-More than twice the size of the golf ball—size ones shown here.
As updrafts in a severe thunderstorm cloud become stronger, they pull more air into the base of the cloud to replace the rising air. As the air from the surface moves into a smaller area, it begins to rotate faster, owing to what physicists call the conservation of angular momentum. The latter can be illustrated by the example of an ice skater who, while spinning with her arms outstretched, pulls her arms inward. As she does so, the speed of her rotation increases. The same happens with rotating air as it moves from the large space of the ground to the smaller space of the cloud.
Thus, a funnel cloud is produced and grows, and if it becomes large enough, it may touch ground—with devastating results. Within the vortex of a tornado, which is typically about 328 ft, (100 m) in diameter, wind speeds may be greater than 220 MPH (100 m/s). The tornado itself travels at speeds of 10-30 MPH (15-45 km/h), making a sound like a freight train or a jet engine and wreaking havoc along a path as long as 200 mi, (321 km). Nothing can stand in the way of a tornado with enough force: buildings shatter, roofs and whole houses take to the air, and pieces of straw can be blown through solid wood-
No country in the world is more prone to tornado activity than the United States, a large portion of which is known as “Tornado Alley.” The latter area has no specific boundaries, though it is more or less contiguous with the wide Kansas-to-Carolina swath mentioned earlier. Some authorities describe Tornado Alley as including northern Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and southern Nebraska. However, the American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Weather and Climate defines Tornado Alley as “The area of the United States in which tornadoes are most frequent. It encompasses the great lowland areas of the Mississippi, the Ohio, and lower Missouri River valleys. Although no state is entirely free of tornadoes, they are most frequent in the plains area between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians.”
It is no accident that a wide, flat region, over which heavy winds can blow from numerous directions—including winds off of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean—would be home to such enormous tornado activity. Tornado Alley, or parts of it, has seen numerous extraordinary weather events in which not one or two tornadoes struck, but many dozens—a phenomenon known as a tornado outbreak, or a super outbreak.
The worst super outbreak In recent memory occurred on April 3-4,1974, when 148 rampaged through 14 states. It began on the morning of the 3rd, when a low-pressure system moved over central Kansas, spreading a cold front as far south as Texas. Meanwhile, a warm front clung to the lower Ohio River Valley, and various unstable patterns covered the South. Into this motley mix came strong winds, which soon took hold over much of the eastern United States. By afternoon, thunderstorms began raging over much of the Midwest and South, Including the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys.
The result was a series of nearly 150 tornadoes, including 48 that were classified as F4 or F5, the highest levels on the Fujita-Pearson scale used to rate the intensity or tornadoes. Some other significant tornado events since that time include the Carolina outbreak, which killed 57 people, injured 1,248, and caused $200 million In damage, on March 28, 1984. A year later, on May 31, 1985, an outbreak of 41 tornadoes in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ontario killed almost 90 people and caused over $450 million In damage.
Another form of extreme weather is a cyclone, a general term for what is sometimes called a hurricane or a typhoon. These are vast circulating storm systems characterized by bands of showers, thunderstorms, and winds. They develop over warm tropical oceans, generally as isolated thunderstorms, and turn into monsters. A cyclone may have a diameter as great as 403 mi. (650 km) and be more than 7.5 ml. (12 km) in height.
Near the center of the cyclone, winds may be as high as 110 MPH (50 m/s), yet the very center is an area of complete calm, known as the eye. This is a region of descending air surrounded by the updrafts that characterize the cyclone, making the eye a little funnel of peace in the middle of a terrible storm. If it were possible to stay in the eye of the cyclone as it moves—at speeds comparable to that of a tornado—it is conceivable one could come away unscathed.
The impact of cyclones
Once the cyclone blows inland and reaches population centers, it can cause massive death and destruction. The southern United States witnessed this with hurricanes such as Hugo, which devastated the Carolinas and nearby regions In 1989. The damage on Puerto Rico alone (one of the places Hugo touched down before moving north) amounted to 12 lives lost, and $2 billion in property. Thanks to evacuation measures and a bit of good fortune (the hurricane missed Charleston, South Carolina), loss of life was minimal on the continental United States, and loss of property was kept to $5 billion. By contrast, Hurricane Andrew, which struck Florida and other parts of the southern United States in August 1992, was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with over $25 billion in damage reported.
A GLOBAL NETWORK OF WEATHER SATELLITES MAKES IT POSSIBLE TCI IDENTIFY AI-JD TRACK TROPICAL CYCLONES FROM THEIR EARLIEST APPEARANCE AS DISTURBANCES OVER THE OCEAN. A CYCLONE CAN GENERATE WINDS AS HIGH AS 1 1C MPH ( 5D Nl/SEC), YET THE VERY CENTER IS AN AREA OF COMPLETE CALM, KNOWN AS THE EYE.
But the impact of storms in the United States is dwarfed by the destruction of hurricanes and typhoons in third world countries. Bangladesh, for instance, is a country where a population half that of the United States is crammed into an area the size of Wisconsin. (And, it should be noted, a country so poor that the income of the average full-time working man is far less than that of an American teenager working a part-time job.)
In such a situation, the impact of cyclones is bound to be devastating. Though dollar figures of property damage from the country’s many cyclones are not available, the human toll is better known. Since 1963, when it was still called East Pakistan, Bangladesh, has seen seven cyclones in which 10,000 or more died. The worst, :n 1970, killed half a million. Government estimates of deaths from a cyclone on April 10, 1991, were 150,000, though it is likely that many more died from disease, starvation, and exposure.
Likewise, typhoons in such countries as the Philippines cause massive power outages, flooding, landslides, and destruction of life and property. In part this is because a number of these countries are located in or near tropical zones that are especially susceptible to cyclones, but it is also a matter of preparedness,
Responding to cyclones
In the United States, with its greater material wealth and technological sophistication, It is possible to prepare people for extreme weather in a way that is simply beyond the reach of many less prosperous or powerful nations. It is not so much that Americans are capable of developing structures such as seawalls that can withstand the force of hurricanes, though this certainly helps. The seawall in Charleston, South Carolina, for instance—a massive bulwark of concrete more than 10 ft. (3 m) high—is intended to protect homes in that city’s historic Battery when hurricanes produce powerful ocean swells.
Much of the effectiveness of the American response to hurricanes, however, Is attributable to the ability to react to circumstances rather than to prevent them. With a large amount of the population possessing electronic communication, it is possible to circulate word quickly regarding the coming deluge. Furthermore, people in the United States are much more mobile than their counterparts in developing countries and can evacuate hurricane regions more easily. Additionally, a wealthier and more powerful government is able to administer relief more quickly and in greater quantities than the leadership of small, poor nations.
Dry ice (solid carbon dioxide), seen here being converted into a vapor, often is used to change supercooled water in clouds into ice crystals in the weather modification technique called cloud seeding.
Even so, hurricanes and typhoons have a vast impact wherever they strike, and perhaps for this reason a certain mystery and lore have developed around them. Reflective of this fascination is the practice of personalizing hurricanes. Originally, the U.S. National Weather Service gave them women’s names, but In response to protests from feminist groups, by the late 1970s it had adopted a practice of using an alphabetic list of alternating male and female first names. The Weather Service draws up new lists each year to name the cyclones of the western Pacific and the Caribbean/Gulf regions.
Forecasting and Controlling Weather
Until the twentieth century, people had little warning when a cyclone was coming. Early in that century, however, the establishment of hurricane-watch services offered the hope of early warning, and by the 1930s ships and weather balloons were used to provide readings on atmospheric conditions that might portend cyclones. In the 1940s airplanes and, later, radar further increased meteorologists’ ability to monitor the atmosphere. Today a global network of weather satellites makes it possible to identify and track tropical cyclones from their earliest appearance as disturbances over the remote ocean.
From the time of the Greeks, at least, people have tried to forecast the weather. They attempted to do so with varying degrees of success, using means that included folklore, superstition, old wives’ tales, traditional wisdom, instinct, intuition, and even a little bit of science. Sometimes this mixed bag yielded valuable Information, such as the old and essentially accurate saying “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” Yet without true scientific methods of forecasting, would-be meteorologists were just shooting in the dark—as the sometimes inaccurate results of today’s much more scientific forecasting shows.
A turning point came in the twentieth century, with the development of such monitoring systems as the cyclone-monitoring techniques we have mentioned. It says a great deal about just how young meteorology Is as a science that one of its two founders as a modern discipline died only in the 1970s. This was Jakob Bjerknes (1897-1975), a Norwegian-born American meteorologist who, in the 1920s, established a network of weather stations with his father, the Norwegian physicist Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862-1951). Vilhehn proposed the idea of air masses, a pivotal concept in meteorology, while Jakob discovered the origin of cyclones.
Modern weather forecasting
Weather forecasting in the United States is the responsibility of the National Weather Service (NWS), which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce. The NWS maintains a vast network of field offices and weather stations as well as nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction, each of which is focused on specific weather-related responsibilities. The complexity of the NWS organizational system hints at the greater complexity of weather forecasting itself, which we touch on here in only the most cursory fashion.
Atmosphere: In general, an atmosphere is a blanket of gases surrounding a planet. Unless otherwise identified, however, the term refers to the atmosphere of Earth, which consists of nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%), argon (0.93%), and other substances that include water vapor, carbon dioxide, ozone, and noble gases such as neon (0.07%).
Climate: The pattern of weather conditions in a particular region over an extended period. Compare with weather.
Condensation: The formation of a liquid from a vapor, usually as a result of a reduction in temperature.
Convection: Vertical circulation that results from differences in density ultimately brought about by differences in temperature. Convection involves the transfer of heat through the motion of hot fluid (e.g., air) from one place to another.
Convection current: The flow of material heated by means of convection.
Evaporation: The process whereby liquid water is converted into a gaseous state and transported to the atmosphere. When discussing the atmosphere and precipitation, evaporation generally is distinguished from transpiration. In this context, evaporation refers solely to the transfer of water from nonliving sources, such as the soil or the surface of a lake.
Evapotranspiration: The loss of water to the atmosphere via the combined (and related) processes of evaporation and transpiration.
Humidity: The amount of water vapor In the air.
Meteorology: The study of the atmosphere, weather, and weather prediction.
Precipitation: When discussing the hydrologic cycle or meteorology, precipitation refers to the water, in liquid or solid form, that falls to the ground when the atmosphere has become saturated with moisture.
Transpiration: The process whereby moisture is transferred from living organisms to the atmosphere. A major portion of environmental moisture for precipitation comes from plants, which lose water through their stomata, small openings on the undersides of leaves.
Unstable atmosphere: A term describing a situation in which air temperature drops rapidly with altitude. As a result, a packet of air continues to move upward owing to the temperature difference between it and the surrounding air.
Weather: The condition of the atmosphere at a given time and place. Compare with climate.
A number of useful techniques and forms of technology are available to the modern meteorologist. Perhaps the best known of these Is Doppler radar, used to track the movement of storm systems. By detecting the direction and velocity of raindrops or hall, Doppler radar can help the meteorologist determine the direction of winds, and thus predict weather patterns that will follow in the next minutes or hours. But Doppler radar can do more than simply detect a storm in progress: Doppler technology also aids meteorologists by interpreting wind direction. Other forms of weather-forecasting technology include NEXRAD (Nest Generation Radar) and GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite).
Some types of weather forecast
The simplest (and usually least accurate) type of forecast is called a persistent forecast and starts with the assumption that existing patterns will continue into the future. The problem with this notion, of course, is that with the complexity of weather, patterns are always changing. More reliable is the so-called trend method, based on the relationship between the movement of air masses and the larger weather patterns. This is a type of prediction familiar to most of us from weather maps displayed by TV meteorologists.
Similar to the trend method is the analogue method, which uses analogies (hence the name) between current weather maps and similar maps from the past. If a weather map for today closely matches the map of patterns that prevailed on a particular day three years ago, it is possible to make some predictions about the weather now by referring to conditions that developed at that time.
Meteorology may employ statistical probability, and when it comes to long-range forecasting, the mathematics may become considerably more complex. This is illustrated by the fact that chaos theory, one of the most challenging branches of modern mathematics, was the brainchild not of a mathematician but of the American meteorologist Edward Lorenz (1917-). An outgrowth of Lorenz’s studies in atmospheric patterns, chaos theory is applied in studying extremely complex systems whose behavior appears random. (On a pop-culture note, chaos theory was the specialization of Ian Malcolm, the mathematician played by Jeff Goldblum In the film, Jurassic Park.)
People at the turn of the nineteenth century would have been flabbergasted to know that it would be possible by the twenty-first century to provide a reasonably accurate 24-hour weather forecast. They would have been even more astounded at the idea of a five-day forecast, which is common (though with varying degrees of accuracy) on most local and national weather reports. And, no doubt, they would have been “blown away”—to use a popular weather metaphor—at the concept that modern technology makes It possible even to exert some control over the weather.
Weather modification includes techniques such as cloud-seeding, which originated in the 1940s. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, several other methods of weather modification existed, among them frost prevention, fog and cloud dispersal, hurricane modification, hail suppression, and lighting suppression.
Cloud seeding necessitates the conversion of supercooled water in clouds—that is, water whose temperature has dropped below the freezing point without it actually freezing—into ice crystals. Dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) and silver iodide are the substances most commonly employed for this purpose. The result Is, or at least can be, snow clouds. On the other hand, cloud-seeding techniques can be used for fog dispersal, another form of weather modification useful, for instance, in the skies over airports.