Meteorologists are concerned with static stability parameters in order to understand convective weather patterns. If the atmosphere is unstable with abundant low-level moisture and a mechanism exists to lift the air (thereby releasing the potential instability), convective weather and rainfall (showers) can develop. Conditions favorable for these events are warm, moist air at low levels; cool, dry air aloft; and surface convergence coupled with upper-level divergence. A study done by Wilson and Scoggins (1976) report that convective activities exist "in areas where the low and middle troposphere is moist, air is potentially and convectively unstable, and has upward motion, in combination with positive moisture advection, at either the surface or within the boundary layer."
Static stability is defined as the stability of the atmosphere in hydrostatic equilibrium with respect to vertical displacements. These displacements are explained by using the parcel method. The parcel is a hypothetical box that does not allow any transfer of heat into or out of the box, but allows only adiabatic temperature changes. The stability of the parcel is dependent upon the parcel's motion after a forced displacement from an original location. As the parcel undergoes adiabatic change, its temperature is compared to that of the surrounding environment so as to relate differences in density. A parcel that returns to its original position is considered stable while one that will continue away from its original position is unstable. One that is displaced and remains at its new position is considered neutral.
Since the density differences are affected by the differences between the adiabatic lapse rates and the environmental lapse rate, one may denote absolute instability occurring when the environmental lapse rate, , exceeds the dry adiabatic lapse rate, ; absolute stability occurring when is less than the wet adiabatic lapse rate, ; and conditional instability when falls between and . The atmosphere may be considered potentially unstable, (or synonymously convectively unstable) when referring to the atmosphere's potential for releasing instability, even when the atmosphere appears to be stable. A layer may be strongly stable (that is, it has a negative lapse rate) and yet still considered to be potentially unstable. This is favored when the bottom of a specific layer is warm and moist while the top of the layer is substantially drier.
The layer method of determining stability involves dynamically lifting a layer of the atmosphere by low-level convergence, an approaching front, etc., similar to the parcel. The restriction of horizontal mixing is eliminated. However, the vertical pressure difference between the top and bottom of the layer must remain constant. As the layer is lifted, the bottom of the layer will saturate more quickly than the top, hence cooling slower than the drier top. This lifting will result in a destabilization of the atmosphere. (See Figure 1.) The original layer is considered convectively unstable if at the point of total saturation, the layer has a lapse rate greater than the . This criterion can be represented by determining the change of the equivalent potential temperature with height. If , the atmosphere is considered convectively unstable.
Notice that the layer started out absolutely stable (a slight inversion) As the top cooled dry adiabatically and the bottom cooled slower, the layer destabilized. If e at the bottom is greater than e at the top, as it is in this case, then the layer's lapse rate is greater than the local wet adiabatic lapse rate and the layer is convectively unstable.
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