I’m caught in an epic electrical storm in a deep gorge in Montana’s Bear Tooth range. Lightning flashes instantly deliver ground-shaking thunderclaps crashing and booming off thousand foot granite walls. A battleground of the wildest kind! Plunging waterfalls absorb sound energy mimicking an avalanche of boulders. I’m immersed in electrical aura!!
Two days later, I discover a friend was caught in a storm of similar magnitude while exploring high country in the Bear River Range of Northern Utah. He too felt nature’s omnipotence, describing it as heavy battlefield artillery.
I find our earth’s atmosphere to be mystical- from rainbows to mystery clouds- from tornados to hurricanes and tennis ball sized hail.
The earth’s onionskin-thin atmosphere is a rich soup from microscopic life and dust particles to avifauna and airplanes. Uniform to the eye, its mixture is anything but. Examine a column of air most anywhere and you’ll find it different from any other air column. The components found in this heterogeneous mixture are of endless variety as any atmospheric chemist will tell you.
Many aerosol substances of natural origin are present in locally and seasonally variable amounts, including dust of mineral and organic composition, pollen and spores, sea spray, and volcanic ash to name a few. Various industrial pollutants also may be present as gases or aerosols, such as chlorine and fluorine compounds and elemental mercury vapor. Sulfur compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen may be derived from natural sources or from industrial air pollutants.
Clouds are utterly fascinating for their beauty and how they are formed. Why do they suddenly appear from thin air? Clouds have three essential ingredients- small particles, water vapor, and a critical temperature called dew point. Considering the air is anything but uniform- including temperature, humidity, and particle types, when these three ingredients converge, Newalla- a cloud is birthed!
My favorites are cumulonimbus- also called thunderheads. They can reach heights of 6 miles and may spawn violent storms, including tornados. They are saturated with both electrical and mechanical energy. Due to updrafts causing friction among icy particles, the cloud becomes electrically charged with positives on top and negatives on the bottom. The strong negative charge at the clouds base creates a temporary positive charge on the ground. Considering opposite charges attract, an exchange of electrical energy may occur- lightening! The extreme heat, averaging 36,300 degrees F, causes molecular collision manifested as sound energy. It can be deafening, resulting in temporary or permanent hearing loss.
Our mountains are great cloud makers, referred to as orographic lifting. As the air rises to travel over the summit, it expands and cools, reaching the critical dew point mentioned. Thus, as one increases a thousand feet in elevation the temperature drops about 4 degrees F and gains about 4” of annual precipitation.
More reason to marvel at our miracle planet, more reason to celebrate its beauty, mystery, and fragility.
Jack Greene representing Bridgerland Audubon, and I’m wild about Utah!
Images: Courtesy NPS, Yellowstone Weather Collection, J Schmidt, Photographer
Courtesy NOAA, NOAA Photo Library, Jane Hartman, Photographer
Courtesy NOAA, NOAA Photo Library, Jared Rackley, Photographer
Courtesy NOAA, NOAA Photo Library
Courtesy NOAA, NOAA Photo Library, Commander John Bortniak, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & Copyright Ewing Nunn
Text: Jack Greene, USU Sustainability Program Volunteer, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Basic Weather Education, Corpus Christi, National Weather Service, https://www.weather.gov/crp/weather_education
Educational resources, National Headquarters, National Weather Service, https://www.weather.gov/learning
Weather & Atmosphere Education, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, https://www.noaa.gov/weather-atmosphere-education
Air Quality, Chemical Sciences Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/csl/research/airquality.html
Utah Winter Fine Particulate Study (UWFPS), Chemical Sciences Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/csl/groups/csl7/measurements/2017uwfps/
Larese-Casanova, Mark, Utah’s Changing Climate and Weather, Wild About Utah, December 21, 2011, https://wildaboututah.org/utahs-changing-climate-and-weather/
Strand, Holly, Wind, Hold on to Your Hat!, Wild About Utah, June 16, 2011, https://wildaboututah.org/hold-on-to-your-hat/
Strand, Holly, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, Wild About Utah, January 17, 2013, https://wildaboututah.org/baby-its-cold-outside/
Cane, James, Kervin, Linda, Virga: Teasing Rain, Wild About Utah, August 12, 2010, https://wildaboututah.org/virga/