Condensation Nuclei: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Dominic Corsini
This lesson describes condensation nuclei, their forms, and their functions. It helps you to understand how clouds, fog, and precipitation all form. A summary and brief quiz are included.

What Are Condensation Nuclei?

I often find myself in amazement at how the simplest of questions are sometimes the most difficult to answer. For example, we were recently driving down the road when my children asked me where clouds came from. Now the standard answer to this question is to say that water vapor condenses into visible droplets that form the cloud. But how do you explain that to a young child? Or better yet, how do you explain why water vapor condenses to an older student (such as a high school senior or college undergraduate). The truth is, cloud formation isn't as simple as it first appears because to understand clouds you must first understand something called condensation nuclei. Condensation nuclei are tiny particles in the air on which water vapor condenses and they are the key to making clouds, fog, haze, rain, and other forms of precipitation.

Condensation nuclei come in many forms. They can form from dust, soot from fires and vehicle exhaust, sea salts from waves crashing onto shore, volcanic eruptions, or any other way small particles enter the atmosphere. Make no mistake, these particles are very small and you likely don't even notice them. The average condensation nuclei is only about 1/100th the size of a cloud droplet. Because nuclei are made from different materials, they also differ in terms of their ability to form clouds (or fog). For example, something like sea salt can absorb water very well, thus forming droplets easily. However materials like soot from a coal fired stove or dust from the highway don't absorb water well and would have more difficulty producing a cloud droplet.

How Condensation Nuclei Work

Most people know that clouds are made of water vapor. In fact, water vapor is everywhere, not just in the sky. But the water vapor in the sky is what eventually makes rain, snow, sleet, or hail, so let's concentrate on that.

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