Friday, March 30, 2007

Hot Air Rises

In order to continue explaining air masses I must first explain density and pressure. Density is a measurement of how close together the air molecules are, or, put another way, a measure of what weight of air exists in any given volume. More weight per volume is the same thing as higher density.

If you pack socks into a box there are two ways to maximize the sock density. One is to use thin, non-fluffy socks and the other is to cram your socks in as hard as you can, stomping on them to get them to fit before you seal the box. (You know I just moved house, right?) These two factors are the same as the ones that affect air density.

'Fluffiness' of the air corresponds of temperature. The higher the temperature, the greater the volume the air wants to occupy. It's actually because the speed of the air molecules is greater at high temperature, but you can think of the volume they thus occupy as them being all fluffed up hot out of the tumble drier. All else being equal, warm air occupies more volume than the same weight of cold air. Therefore, all else being equal, an equivalent volume of cold air weighs more than warm air.

Stomping on the pile of socks corresponds to pressure. Is pressure, really. Pressure is defined as force per unit area, and in the atmosphere it is a result of all the air stacked up on top of the bit of air you're considering. Imagine you're looking at a cubic litre of air(*). Its pressure is equivalent to the weight of all the ten by ten by ten cubes of air that are stacked on top of it, all the way up to the top of the atmosphere. Sure, one little cube of air doesn't weigh much, but stack enough up and it adds up. So air down near the bottom of the atmosphere is at a higher pressure than air further up in the atmosphere, where it has fewer boxes stacked on top of it. Kind of like the box of drinking glasses underneath four boxes of aviation textbooks is under more pressure than the one that is ony one box into a pile.

You can see pressure and temperature kind of work against one another with respect to density. If the pressure increases and the temperture stays the same, the density will increase. If the temperature increases and the pressure stays the same, the density will decrease. Cold air at a high altitude is less dense than warm air at a low altitude, because the effect of the low pressure at high altitude more than balances the effect of the temperature difference. There's even a formula:
  P x V = T x constant
P = pressure, T = temperature, V = volume.

So, we have a bunch of air hanging about. Air in the same vicinity within the same air mass is pretty much interchangeable. It's all mostly nitrogen, and contains some amount of moisture, and at the same pressure because its under the same pile of air. And its at the same temperature. If some of it were to be heated up to be warmer than the surrounding air, look at what would happen. Firstly, it doesn't warm the air around it. If air were good at sharing its heat with the molecules around it, down-filled parkas wouldn't be such treasured possessions in the north. (The puffy feathers create little air pockets and heat doesn't travel well through air, so that keeps me warm.) If a little bit of air is warmer than the air around it then it is also less dense than the air around it. And that means that the gravitational force holding it down isn't as great as the pressure differential between the air above it and the air below it, so it is pushed up, and rises.

And yes, I did just spend six paragraphs explaining that hot air rises. Just think of it as a demonstration of hot air. The reason I did it that way is that warm air doesn't always rise. If that were true it would be warmer at the tops of mountains than at the bottom. Air rises if it is less dense than the air around it. If the pressure is the same, then temperature determines density. So it rises if it is warmer than the air around it, sinks if it is colder than the air around it, and stays in the same place if it is the same temperature as the air around it.

There's one further trick to the rising air, as it rises, the pressure around it decreases, so according to the formula, if the temperature stays the same, the volume has to increase. And it does. The rising air expands. It actually also cools as it expands, so the result is that the same air occupies a greater volume at a lower pressure and temperature.

What it does next is for next time this multi-threaded blog returns to weather theory.

(*)If you didn't go to elementary school in Canada after metrification you missed out on carefully measuring ten centimetres by ten centimetres by ten centimetres and building a little cardboard box. That's about four inches cubed, for the aggressively non-metric. Once you'd built and folded your cardboard cube, and mended any measuring or folding errors with vast quantities of cellophane tape, you had a concrete way to visualize a ten centimetre length, one thousand cubic centimetres, one litre capacity, and, if you imagined what your cube would feel like if it were filled with water, one kilogram. I'm not making this up. They used to hand these things out at fairgrounds, in modern 1970s colours like pink, yellow and lime green. Someone back me up here. I'll trade you a working flashlight for a genuine 1970s MetriCube.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Great Lumps of Air

I keep promising weather theory, but I get distracted. It's also hard to start in the middle as I have to assume something. So I'll start at the beginning and weave more weather into the continuing story, continuing to be distracted on and off. My life is alrady a soap opera, so now I'll run multiple story lines. In any one week everyone should be able to find something of interest. And that will distract you from the fact that I haven't confessed what I'm doing yet. Today you have my take on some of the basic components of weather.

The Earth, as those of you who breathe regularly will have noticed, is surrounded by air. All the air contains the same gases: nitrogen, oxygen, argon, water vapour and a number of lesser components like carbon dioxide, helium, and even krypton (no, it's not green). The proportions of the non-water gases are almost completely uniform from place to place, so in dry air, that's 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% argon (the other gases are present in a few parts per million, sharing that one percent with the argon). Air temperature varies from place to place, both horizontally and vertically. Plus the air is not distributed perfectly uniformly about the earth. There are bigger piles of it some places than others.

Some of you won't believe me about the bigger piles thing, thinking that making a bigger pile of air would be like making a bigger pile of water, and that differences in pressure thus created would fill in the gaps and and even out the piles. Of course that does happen, and that plus the behaviour of the water vapour makes weather.

I didn't mention water vapour yet, because its variation would have made it awkward to include in the general composition of air, and it's important enough to merit its own paragraph. Water vapour is the gas form of the wet stuff we normally call water. It is a colourless, invisible gas. (The steam you see coming out of the kettle is not actually water vapour, it is liquid water droplets. If you want to 'see' water vapour, crouch down to eye level with the spout of the boiling kettle. Be careful not to burn your nose, and you will be able to observe a space in the first centimetre above the spout in which there is no appearance of steam. That's air with a high concentration of water vapour, rising from the kettle. As the liquid water boils, it turns to hot vapour and rises. As it leaves the spout of your kettle it mixes with the much cooler air of your kitchen and condenses, turning back into liquid water. Because the liquid water is in the form of very small droplets, the warm rising air can support its weight and it continues to rise as steam. Until it condenses on the underside of your cupboards and makes them all soggy so they won't hold plates anymore. But I digress.) So there is water vapour in the air all around you, but you can't see it any more than you can see the nitrogen. The proportion of water vapour may be up to about 4% of the total air, but can be 1% or less. So where you sit right now the actual proportion of gases in the air might be something like 76% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, 3% water vapour and 1% argon and other.

So we have these great piles of air. Each pile, called an air mass, starts at the surface and wherever it ends, somewhere between around 30,000' and 60,000' up, is called the tropopause. There's more air above the tropopause, but that's called the stratosphere and stratospheric weather is a different subject. Air masses are formed by air lying around in one place for a while. Air masses are big, so by "one place" I mean "Antarctica," "subtropical Africa," "the Pacific Ocean" or "the far north of Canada." The air takes on the relative characteristics of the place it hangs out. Well not all of them. We don't get pointy air or high-crime air or fundamentalist Christian air. We just get moist air versus dry air and cold air versus warm air. It's all relative, so an air mass that forms over the Canadian prairies/American midwest in winter is cold compared to the air mass that formed over the southern states, but warm compared to the one that formed over the bleak arctic tundra and frozen seas. Yes, frozen seas. But it's a dry cold.

Of course everything has special names so that you don't think this weather stuff is easy. Moist air masses, like the kind that form over non-frozen seas, lakes, and jungles is called maritime, and dry air, like the kind formed over deserts or frozen landscapes is called continental. If you've ever had a "continental breakfast" at a Holiday Inn you can remember this by the dry, cellophane wrapped pastry. Or you can just remember it, because continents that don't have the Great Lakes and Michigan/Manitoba in the middle of them tend to be drier in the middle and wetter at the (maritime) coasts. That second way would really be a better way to remember it, because it is actually true, but isn't as funny as Holiday Inn breakfasts.

The cold and warm air masses mostly just go by "cold" and "warm" but they do have fancy-schmancy names, too. From north to south in Canada we are influenced by two different Arctic air masses, Polar, and Tropical air masses. South of the tropical air lurks an Equatorial air mass, but I must confess to being largely unfamiliar with its whims.