Atmospheric Electrical Detection of Organized Convection

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Science  20 Jun 1975:
Vol. 188, Issue 4194, pp. 1171-1177
DOI: 10.1126/science.188.4194.1171


Relatively simple atmospheric electrical instrumentation carried on a small aircraft constitutes a flexible and sensitive system for detecting organized convection. Data can be obtained close to the sea surface, and low-velocity flight enhances the spatial resolution. With a slow-flying airplane or powered glider, it may be possible to trace the circulation of individual convection cells and to investigate the trajectory of air which forms cumulus clouds, one of the major unsolved problems in tropical meteorology. Since space charge near the ocean surface was found on some days to be organized on a horizontal scale equivalent to the cumulus cloud scale, this suggests that some of the air which forms maritime cumulus clouds may come from within a few meters of the ocean and that atmospheric electrical instrumentation may have the potential for tracing air from the sea surface to the clouds.

Although the atmospheric electrical instrumentation technique described here cannot be used for direct measurement of air velocity, it may be possible to develop model that can be used to calculate air velocities from electric field data. Even though with the technique described here it is not possible to make direct measurements of wind velocity, airborne electric field records can provide useful information about convection by delineating patterns in the wind field and structural features of thermals (rising bodies of relatively warm air) and by making possible the remote detection of thermals (29).

Future plans include attempting to trace interfaces between adjacent roll vortices from the sea surface through the depth of the mixed layer (i) by flying the aircraft parallel to the wind so as to nullify the horizontal electric field (measured between wing-tip probes) while ascending and descending along the interface between adjacent roll vortices and (ii) by measuring vertical and horizontal potential gradient variations at different flight levels (30).

The sensitivity of atmospheric electrical instrumentation to the top of the mixed layer and structure within it can be used to explore another important problem in boundary layer convection—why convective cloud cover and oceanic rainfall are greater at night than during the day(31).

Workers in atmospheric electricity have long recognized that their domain is strongly controlled by turbulence in the lower atmosphere, and many have believed that the most effective use of atmospheric electrical techniques to assist meteorological research would be in studying exchange processes. Reiter [see (8)] effectively extended atmospheric electrical studies of boundary layer phenomena through a height range by mounting instruments on cable cars traveling between the valley floor and mountain tops in the Alps. The airborne measurements described here extend this approach. Relating the electrical structure of the atmosphere to its dynamic structure poses an interesting problem which may contribute to our understanding of the atmosphere.