The Effects of Inversions

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  • 0:02 Temperature in the Atmosphere
  • 0:53 Circulating Air
  • 2:04 Cloud Formation
  • 3:16 Causes and Types of Inversions
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Meredith Mikell
Temperature inversions change the stability and dynamic of air movement in the atmosphere. Here, we will explore what temperature inversions are and their effects on weather patterns.

Temperature in the Atmosphere

As you have probably figured out, the higher up you go in the atmosphere, the cooler it gets. The climate on the tops of mountains is usually much colder than the climate at lower elevations, if all other factors are equal. This is because of the environmental lapse rate, the cooling of the atmosphere with altitude at a rate of about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit every 1000 feet. This is largely because the insulating effect of Earth's atmosphere traps more heat closer to the surface, and the surface reflects much of that heat back up. But sometimes temperature in the atmosphere can undergo a temperature inversion, where warm air sits on top of cold air. Inversions can have some pretty significant impacts on cloud formation and air stability.

Circulating Air

Even with a consistent decrease in temperature with altitude, air doesn't stay in one place. Changes in temperature and humidity cause changes in air density, and when some air has a different density than other air around it, it moves. You've seen this happen when you've watched a helium-filled balloon rise up to the ceiling of a room. Helium is inherently less dense than the gases that make up our atmosphere, and so, it rises. Over time, the pressure of helium in the balloon pushes on the porous balloon material and leaks out, causing the balloons to deflate. But you don't need two different types of gases for this cycle to work.

Temperature also affects air density, which is why convection ovens work: warm, less-dense air rises, and cool, more-dense air sinks, circulating heat inside the oven and cooking food more evenly. Strong convection in the atmosphere can create vertical currents, making the air unstable. But when a temperature inversion occurs and cool air is trapped under a layer of warm air, normal convection is stalled. The air becomes more stable, and cloud formation changes.

Cloud Formation

Convection cycles in the atmosphere drive cloud formation. More water vapor causes high humidity and less causes the climate to feel dry. When warm, humid air rises, it will eventually cool as the air moves upward in the atmosphere. When water vapor cools, it condenses into tiny droplets that stay suspended in the air. The result: big, puffy white clouds!

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