steamy coffee

Clouds, condensation and coffee

Clouds in my coffee. There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, plenty of atmospheric physics you can encounter in your cup.

As we approach the end of the year, it is a good time to notice the changes in the weather. If you are in the northern hemisphere, the nights grow longer as the days grow colder. If you are in the southern hemisphere it is the opposite. And yet around the world, we have things in common. There may be days when it is more cloudy and days when there is a heavy dew (or even in some places a frost) on the grass. But what has this to do with coffee?

It’s to do with some experiments that you can do at home or on your way to work. And, in particular, with two effects you can see in your coffee cup.

To start with the dew, perhaps you’ve noticed the condensation around the rim of the cup or the coffee pot when you brew the coffee and the hot steam condenses onto the cold mug around it. Condensation happens because the temperature of the mug is lower than the ‘dew point’ of water at that humidity and pressure. Below the temperature of the dew point, the water vapour will condense into the liquid droplets that we then see dotted around the mug.

coffee bowl pour over
You can see the condensation on the V60 brewer here. Looking at the dew formed in the mornings, what does it tell you about the temperature of space?

It is a similar effect on the grass: the temperature there is lower than the point at which the water vapour in the air starts to condense out of the air and so you get dew. William Charles Wells published his “Essay on Dew” in 1814. The result of more than two years of careful observation, Wells found that dew formed only under certain weather conditions and only on certain space (sky) facing surfaces. Wells’ results can be used to show that the space around the earth is much colder than the surface of our planet. His results (together with some back of the envelope calculations) can therefore also be used to show that the Earth is in a delicate balance and has a natural greenhouse effect. As the weather changes this year and you notice the dew, can you see how Well’s could come to this conclusion?

The second coffee experiment we could do at this time of year is to see whether pollution affects our steaming take-away coffee. While generally it’s always a better idea to sit in a cafe and take the time to enjoy your coffee, there are occasions when a take-away is necessary. Just as with the dew, clouds start to form when the air temperature drops below the dew point. However, water droplets in the air are unstable to evaporation and so as soon as a pure water droplet is formed, it will evaporate unless it has a diameter larger than about 0.1 µmª. This may seem small and yet to spontaneously form a droplet with this diameter would take the accumulation of several million water molecules (I will leave it to you to do the estimate!). This represents a very improbable occurrence and yet we can see that clouds are everywhere, how can this be?

contrail, sunset
Contrails are caused by condensing water droplets behind aeroplanes. But why are they white and what does that tell you about the water droplets within them?

The answer comes from the dust. Fortunately we are a dusty planet and these bits of dust in the atmosphere act as ‘nucleation’ points for water to condense onto. This makes the condensation of water into droplets much more likely and so clouds – which are an accumulation of droplets – can form.

Which brings us back to the coffee. If clouds require dust in order to form droplets, and the steam above your coffee is a grouping of water droplets, does it not make sense that your coffee should be steamier next to a polluted road than in the middle of a park (for the same temperature coffee)?

It’s an idea that I’ve never been able to test but the shift to colder weather here offers a(nother) perfect opportunity.

Does your coffee steam more when you take it away from a city cafe?

I look forward to hearing about the results of your experiments, in the comments here, on Twitter or on Facebook.

ª Introduction to Atmospheric Physics, Andrews, Cambridge University Press, 2008