Weather and Atmospheric Water

Elements of Weather

If someone across country asks you what the weather is like today, you need to consider several factors. Air temperature, humidity, wind speed, the amount and types of clouds, and precipitation are all part of a thorough weather report. In this chapter, you will learn about many of these features in more detail.

Weather is what is going on in the atmosphere at a particular place at a particular time. Weather can change rapidly. A location’s weather depends on air temperature, air pressure, fog, humidity, cloud cover, precipitation, and wind speed and direction. All of these are directly related to the amount of energy that is in the system and where that energy is. The ultimate source of this energy is the sun.

Climate is the average of a region’s weather over time. The climate for a particular place is steady, and changes only very slowly. Climate is determined by many factors, including the angle of the Sun, the likelihood of cloud cover, and the air pressure. All of these factors are related to the amount of energy that is found in that location over time.


water droplets collected together on a pane of glassHumidity is the amount of water vapor in the air in a particular spot. We usually use the term to mean relative humidity, the percentage of water vapor a certain volume of air is holding relative to the maximum amount it can contain. If the humidity today is 80 percent, it means that the air contains 80 percent of the total amount of water it can hold at that temperature. What will happen if the humidity increases to more than 100 percent? The excess water condenses and forms precipitation.

Since warm air can hold more water vapor than cool air, raising or lowering temperature can change air’s relative humidity. The temperature at which air becomes saturated with water is called the air’s dew point. This term makes sense, because water condenses from the air as dew, if the air cools down overnight and reaches 100 percent humidity.


cumulus cloudsClouds have a big influence on weather by preventing solar radiation from reaching the ground; absorbing warmth that is re-emitted from the ground; and as the source of precipitation. When there are no clouds, there is less insulation. As a result, cloudless days can be extremely hot, and cloudless nights can be very cold. For this reason, cloudy days tend to have a lower range of temperatures than clear days.

There are a variety of conditions needed for clouds to form. First, clouds form when air reaches its dew point. This can happen in two ways:

  1. Air temperature stays the same but humidity increases. This is common in locations that are warm and humid.
  2. Humidity can remain the same, but temperature decreases.

When the air cools enough to reach 100 percent humidity, water droplets form. Air cools when it comes into contact with a cold surface or when it rises. Rising air creates clouds when it has been warmed at or near the ground level and then is pushed up over a mountain or mountain range or is thrust over a mass of cold, dense air. Water vapor is not visible unless it condenses to become a cloud. Water vapor condenses around a nucleus, such as dust, smoke, or a salt crystal. This forms a tiny liquid droplet. Billions of these water droplets together make a cloud.

Clouds are classified in several ways. The most common classification used today divides clouds into four separate cloud groups, which are determined by their altitude and if precipitation is occurring or not.

  • High-level clouds form from ice crystals where the air is extremely cold and can hold little water vapor. Cirrus, cirrostratus, and cirrocumulus are all names of high clouds. Cirrocumulus clouds are small, white puffs that ripple across the sky, often in rows. Cirrus clouds may indicate that a storm is coming.
  • Middle-level clouds, including altocumulus and altostratus clouds, may be made of water droplets, ice crystals or both, depending on the air temperatures. Thick and broad altostratus clouds are gray or blue-gray. They often cover the entire sky and usually mean a large storm, bearing a lot of precipitation, is coming.
  • Low-level clouds are nearly all water droplets. Stratus, stratocumulus and nimbostratus clouds are common low clouds. Nimbostratus clouds are thick and dark that produce precipitation.
  • Clouds with the prefix cumulo–  grow vertically instead of horizontally and have their bases at low altitude and their tops at high or middle altitude. Clouds grow vertically when strong unstable air currents are rising upward. Common clouds include cumulus humilis, cumulus mediocris, cumulus congestus, and cumulonimbus.

To learn more about the various types of cloud formations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), click here.


Fog over the base of a mountain.Fog is a cloud located at or near the ground. When humid air near the ground cools below its dew point, fog is formed. The several types of fog that each form in a different way. Radiation fog forms at night when skies are clear and the relative humidity is high. As the ground cools, the bottom layer of air cools below its dew point. Tule fog is an extreme form of radiation fog found in some regions. San Francisco, California, is famous for its summertime advection fog. Warm, moist Pacific Ocean air blows over the cold California current and cools below its dew point. Sea breezes bring the fog onshore. Steam fog appears in autumn when cool air moves over a warm lake. Water evaporates from the lake surface and condenses as it cools, appearing like steam. Warm humid air travels up a hillside and cools below its dew point to create upslope fog.


Drops of dew collected on a tree branchPrecipitation is an extremely important part of weather. Some precipitation forms in place. The most common precipitation comes from clouds. Rain or snow droplets grow as they ride air currents in a cloud and collect other droplets. They fall when they become heavy enough to escape from the rising air currents that hold them up in the cloud. One million cloud droplets will combine to make only one rain drop! If temperatures are cold, the droplet will hit the ground as a snowflake.