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How Does the Adiabatic Process Work? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Brad Fessenden
In this lesson we will be learning about the adiabatic process. After learning the definition, we will explore examples that help demonstrate how this process occurs in nature.

Introduction

If you were to trek across the enormous Himalayan mountain range you would eventually have an incredible view of the Tibetan Plateau. This plateau is an expansive desert and its arid conditions are the direct result of adiabatic processes. Many of the great deserts on earth are the direct result of adiabatic processes. In an adiabatic process, matter is heated or cooled without heat being added or taken away from the system. It is heated or cooled simply by the volume of matter expanding or compressing. Although there are many examples of adiabatic processes, we will focus on examples in the atmosphere, specifically the Himalayan mountain range and Tibetan Plateau.

Satellite image of Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau
Satellite image of Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau

Adiabatic Process at the Tibetan Plateau

The Tibetan Plateau is an incredibly arid environment with only 100-300 millimeters of precipitation annually. This lack of precipitation is largely due to what is called the rain shadow effect, which is the direct result of adiabatic processes. The rain shadow effect is a dry area behind mountains that occurs when much of the water present in the air falls as precipitation on one side of a mountain range, leaving the other side of the mountain range with little available water.

Diagram of the rain shadow effect
Diagram of the rain shadow effect

The Tibetan Plateau and many other deserts produced by rain shadow effects are a great way to remember how adiabatic processes work. When thinking of adiabatic processes, it is important to remember that air cools as it expands and heats up as it compresses.

Adiabatic Cooling

On the windward side of the Himalayan mountain range, air is forced to higher altitudes as it is pushed up against the mountain face. As the air moves up the mountain face the pressure decreases, allowing the air to expand in volume. As air expands and decreases in pressure, the air cools; this process is called adiabatic cooling. This rapid decrease in pressure and temperature causes the moisture available to condense and form droplets that then fall towards earth due to gravity. This is why the Himalayan mountain range is covered in snow: the rising, expanding, cooling air becomes precipitation when it rises above the mountains. Much of the Himalayan mountain range receives 1500-3000 mm of precipitation every year.

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