Holographic measurements of inhomogeneous cloud mixing at the centimeter scale

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Science  02 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6256, pp. 87-90
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab0751

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Cloud mixing and droplet evolution

When clouds mix with drier air because of atmospheric turbulence, some of the cloud droplets evaporate. Beals et al. developed an airborne holographic imaging system to look at changes in the spatial structure and sizes of these droplets (see the Perspective by Bodenschatz). Turbulent mixing of clouds with clear air caused dramatic fluctuations in the number density of water droplets but left their mean diameter essentially unchanged. This finding should help models better represent these hard-to-parameterize cloud processes.

Science, this issue p. 87; see also p. 40


Optical properties and precipitation efficiency of atmospheric clouds are largely determined by turbulent mixing with their environment. When cloud liquid water is reduced upon mixing, droplets may evaporate uniformly across the population or, in the other extreme, a subset of droplets may evaporate completely, leaving the remaining drops unaffected. Here, we use airborne holographic imaging to visualize the spatial structure and droplet size distribution at the smallest turbulent scales, thereby observing their response to entrainment and mixing with clear air. The measurements reveal that turbulent clouds are inhomogeneous, with sharp transitions between cloud and clear air properties persisting to dissipative scales (<1 centimeter). The local droplet size distribution fluctuates strongly in number density but with a nearly unchanging mean droplet diameter.

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