The Clouds of Summer

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

Here's the start of another miniseries, this time covering "The Clouds of Summer". We all appreciate their beauty and the rain they bring. Then there's the turbulence we experience when the airliner flies through one, or what about the drenching we get from fog's tiny droplets? For most of us, that's the extent of our experience with them. But i'm betting there is much more to learn: tidbits and concepts that would touch on our everyday lives if we'd bother to look up from the daily grind. Which brings me to the first point. Making us look up in awe and appreciation may be one of their greatest gifts.

Part 2 in The Clouds of Summer miniseries. Quintessential puffy white clouds scoot across the sky and seem to go down to the bottom of this high mountain pond. That's one lesson about clouds...the higher you go the more of them you'll run into. Water vapor just can't resist the urge to condense once temperatures get cold enough, and the thin mountain air doesn't retain much heat--there're not enough air molecules. So as that warm damp air meandering above the lowlands gets pushed up the side of a mountain, it'll reach a height where the temperature falls to a certain level, the tiny droplets suddenly form and you have a cloud. Clouds 101, boom. Now go to the mountains and feel it in your lungs and on your face!

Part 3 in the miniseries. Clouds are the intangible made tangible. They show you just where the air has passed a temperature and humidity threshold, where its vapor condenses to water droplets. Technically known as the dew point, it's a moving target that combines the amount of water in the air and the temperature the air must drop to for it to become saturated and start condensing. You may recall that warmer air holds more vapor and cooler air less, which is why dry air has a lower dew point than humid air. So a mass of clouds shows just where the dew point has been reached across the sky. Now you have a window into the the cells and currents of air swirling above us. Columns of moist air rising, layers of warm air that haven't met their dew point. Expanses of dry air that can't get cold enough to condense even a jet's contrail. There's a picture of the air being painted for us across the sky that's plain as day!

Part 4. Here's the classic summer cloud--a towering cumulus that's going to start lightening and thundering soon. Just imagine a cloud so thick with water droplets it casts a shadow on the air next to it! The air parcels are really going nuts on a hot, moist day like this one. The monsoon wind shift has brought a big mass of wet air up from the Gulf of Mexico. The ground starts heating up through the morning hours as the sun shines on it, sending air currents spiraling upward here and there. The fast climbers reach cooler elevations and their vapor starts to condense, latent heat of condensation adds more upward momentum to the cloud, while colder air from up high spills down to fill the void the rising air left behind. Turbulent winds, downdrafts, crisp the cloud columns. The stage is set for some fireworks!

Part 5 in "Clouds of Summer". As the day winds down, the sun slides toward the horizon, it's rays reddened by traversing a thicker slice of our atmosphere. They tinge the upper level clouds with pink light, but the lower clouds miss out, caught in the earth's shadow. A perfect illustration of 2 of the 10 cloud types out there. Ever ones to organize the world around us, we've categorized clouds based on their height and shape. Here, it looks like we have low-flying stratus clouds coasting in front of loftier cumulus clouds. The stratus clouds signal a wedge of warmer, wetter air moved into a mass of cooler air, where a convection (warm air rising and its moisture condensing) system has been at work creating the higher cumulus. The typical summer afternoon atmospheric shenanigans when the monsoon is in action. That was a few weeks back when the monsoon was in control. Now it's dry out, under the influence of northwest flow. Flawless skies morning, noon and night. Boring!

Part 6 in a series dedicated to the ephemeral and the ethereal, shape-shifting and translucent. One of those things we can't hold in our hands, which heightens their fascination. Even more so because many sacred things are associated with the heavens, which is a literary term for the sky and everything it's got going on. And that, of course, includes the clouds. They must have been the object of worship back in the early days of agriculture, when people realized rain made the seeds sprout. But as scientists have poked and prodded, analyzed and measured, they've pieced together some of their other amazing qualities. Clouds are physics at work, on display at a massive scale: vapor condensing once saturation has occurred. A sliding scale of temperature and humidity, where cold air means the water molecules are also cold, and more of them condense as liquid. When the air's hot, the water is more inclined to go as vapor. States of matter, at play on the air currents. Add in the heavy influence gravity has on air density and temperature, and the array of possibilities for shape, form and substance starts to grow.

Now all that's needed is some light, which the sun handily provides. Like a master painter, the sun works with its subject matter. The direct, hard light of mid-afternoon yields crisp, bright clouds. Sometimes, clouds veil the sky and the sun muddles through their grayness with muted light. Toward evening, the slanting rays paint the clouds in brilliant pink and gold. And then there are the holy moments, when just a few of the sun's rays shower down toward earth from the heavens like a communique from on high. Supposedly crepuscular rays, light scattering from dust and droplets up there, the rays slanting toward a single (heavenly) point just an optical illusion. Maybe that's the case, but who's to say that the cloud masterpiece and the physics behind it aren't just as worthy of our adoration?

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