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Name:      Jared
Status:      student
Grade:       4-5
Location:   CA
Country: N/A
Date: 6/21/2005

My son Jared ask me these questions after looking at the flat bottoms of our storm clouds. What determines the lower altitude of rain cloud? Is there a formula to calculate the bottom position of the clouds?



The bottom of a cloud occurs at the elevation where the air becomes saturated with water. This is called the lifting condensation level. The air is cooled to this point either by lifting of a layer of air (yielding a stratus cloud layer) or by a upwards moving convective plume (yielding individual cumulus clouds).

Equations to determine the bottom of a cloud are beyond the scope of this web site. However, data from a radiosonde sounding can be used to determine the height at which the air temperature in a parcel of air would be cooled to the dew point temperature (where saturation would occur), as a rough estimate of the height at which a cloud would occur.

David R. Cook
Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry Section
Environmental Research Division
Argonne National Laboratory

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