The Madness Behind the Mundane

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June 19th, 2014: Nimbostratus clouds on WCC’s campus

Yeah, I know. Clouds tend to be everyday things that aren’t very exciting, right? Well, not necessarily. Just seeing the could float by in the sky is merely scratching the surface. Everything from how they were formed to why they’re colored white is much more complicated than you may think. The diversity of clouds is quite phenomenal as well; they can be high or low, vast or choppy, fast or slow,  transparent or dense, good or bad, and all the while the way they form could be different! Recently I have been discovering so many interesting facts about clouds, and wish to share some.

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A diagram of cloud formation (click to enlarge)

Let’s start at the beginning. Picture a cloud droplet– smaller than a regular water droplet but still made up of the same compounds. As you might guess, it is a huge group of these cloud droplets that make up a cloud as you know it, but how does it all work? Well, you’ve still got that tiny cloud droplet pictured in your head; now imagine a particle one hundred times smaller than that. This particle is called a nuclei, and the size and density of a cloud depends on how much evaporation or condensation there is on the nuclei. It attracts water particles, later forming the cloud droplet, and when there is more condensation on the nuclei, it will attract more water particles, forming a bigger cloud droplet, and vice versa with the amount of evaporation on the nuclei.  When there’s more condensation on the nuclei than evaporation, the clouds are bigger. They’re smaller when there is more evaporation than condensation on the nuclei, and dissolve more easily.

But that’s not all, because these tiny cloud droplets on their own do not make a cloud. According to NOAA.gov the dewpoint temperature is “the point of saturation is where evaporation equals condensation.” The cloud formation begins with a parcel– a block-like section of air– that is on the surface. As it rises to about 2,000 feet, it expands due to the heat energy being removed from the parcel, and eventually the section of air becomes a cloud at about 40,000 feet. This is called an adiabatic process, which is the most common way for clouds to form.

There’s more to clouds than meets the eye, and you might find that they are not just ordinary, mundane things. In fact, there are some social science organizations for observing the clouds. One of which I am personally participating in with two friends– Megan Martin and Josh Rim– called S’COOL Rover. What we do to participate in S’COOL Rover is record our observations of the clouds for a given time including the cloud type, height, cover, and visual opacity. We hope to discover some new, interesting things these next two weeks and keep updating our findings for anyone interested in reading more about clouds.

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