Does your coffee appear to steam more next to a polluted road than in the countryside?
This is a question that has been bothering me for some time. Perhaps it seems an odd question and maybe it is, but it is all about how clouds form. Maybe as you read this you can glance out the window where you will see blue skies and fluffy white clouds. Each cloud consists of millions, billions, of water droplets. Indeed, according to the Met Office, just one cubic metre of a cloud contains 1 hundred million water droplets. We know something about the size of these droplets because the clouds appear white which is due to the way that particles, including water droplets, scatter sunlight. Clouds appear white because the water droplets scatter the sunlight in all directions. In contrast, the particles in a cloudless sky scatter blue light (from the Sun) more than they scatter red. Consequently, from our viewpoint, the scattered light from the clouds appears white while the sky appears blue. The sort of directionless light scattering that comes from the clouds happens when the scattering sites (ie. the water droplets) are of a size that is comparable to, or larger than, the wavelength of light. This means that the water droplets in a cloud have to be larger than about 700 nm in diameter (or approximately just less than a tenth of the size of the smallest particle in an espresso grind). The particles in the atmosphere on the other hand scatter blue light more than they scatter red light because they are smaller than the wavelength of the blue light. You can find out more about light scattering, blue skies and cloudy days, with a simple experiment involving a glass of milk, more details can be found here.
So each of the one hundred million water droplets in a cubic metre of cloud is at least about a micron in diameter. We can then estimate how many water molecules make up one droplet by dividing the mass of a droplet of this size by the mass of one water molecule. This turns out to be more than 1000 million water molecules that are needed to make up one droplet of cloud. So, 1000 million water molecules are needed for each of the 100 million drops that make up one, just one, cubic metre of cloud. These numbers are truly huge.
But can so many molecules just spontaneously form into so many water droplets? Unlike a snowball, the water droplet in a cloud cannot start very small and accumulate more water, getting larger and larger until it forms a droplet of about a micron in size. Water droplets that are much smaller than about a micron are unstable because the water molecules in the drop evaporate out of it before they get a chance to form into a cloud (precise details depend on the exact atmospheric conditions). Water droplets need to come ‘ready formed’ to make the clouds which seems unlikely. So how is it that clouds can form?
It turns out that the water droplets form by the water condensing onto something in the atmosphere. That something could be dust, or salt or one of the many other sorts of aerosol that are floating around in our skies. Just as with a cold mug filled with hot coffee, the dust in the air gives the water molecules a cold surface onto which they can condense. This sort of water droplet can ‘snowball’ into the bigger droplets that form clouds because the water is now condensing onto something and so does not evaporate off again so easily. At the heart of each water droplet in a cloud is a bit of dust or a tiny crystal of salt. Which brings me back to my question. It is much more dusty along a polluted road than it is in the clean air of the countryside. Is this going to be enough of an effect to affect the probability of cloud formation? Does your coffee steam more as you cross the road than when you walk through the park?
It is a question that demands an experiment (and associated video). Last year, the Met Office suggested this simple experiment for observing clouds in a bottle. Unfortunately however, I have yet to make this experiment work in a way that would allow me to test whether polluted air produces thicker clouds than cleaner air. If you have any suggestions as to a good experiment (that will work on camera!) please let me know either in the comments section, by emailing me, or on Facebook. In the meanwhile, I’d be interested to know what you think, so if you think this post is about you, please let me know.