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Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Volume 13, issue 2 | Copyright
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 13, 1039-1056, 2013
https://doi.org/10.5194/acp-13-1039-2013
© Author(s) 2013. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Research article 25 Jan 2013

Research article | 25 Jan 2013

Where do winds come from? A new theory on how water vapor condensation influences atmospheric pressure and dynamics

A. M. Makarieva1,2, V. G. Gorshkov1,2, D. Sheil3,4,5, A. D. Nobre6,7, and B.-L. Li2 A. M. Makarieva et al.
  • 1Theoretical Physics Division, Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, 188300, Gatchina, St. Petersburg, Russia
  • 2XIEG-UCR International Center for Arid Land Ecology, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521, USA
  • 3School of Environment, Science and Engineering, Southern Cross University, P.O. Box 157, Lismore, NSW 2480, Australia
  • 4Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Kabale, Uganda
  • 5Center for International Forestry Research, P.O. Box 0113 BOCBD, Bogor 16000, Indonesia
  • 6Centro de Ciência do Sistema Terrestre INPE, São José dos Campos SP 12227-010, Brazil
  • 7Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Manaus AM 69060-001, Brazil

Abstract. Phase transitions of atmospheric water play a ubiquitous role in the Earth's climate system, but their direct impact on atmospheric dynamics has escaped wide attention. Here we examine and advance a theory as to how condensation influences atmospheric pressure through the mass removal of water from the gas phase with a simultaneous account of the latent heat release. Building from fundamental physical principles we show that condensation is associated with a decline in air pressure in the lower atmosphere. This decline occurs up to a certain height, which ranges from 3 to 4 km for surface temperatures from 10 to 30 °C. We then estimate the horizontal pressure differences associated with water vapor condensation and find that these are comparable in magnitude with the pressure differences driving observed circulation patterns. The water vapor delivered to the atmosphere via evaporation represents a store of potential energy available to accelerate air and thus drive winds. Our estimates suggest that the global mean power at which this potential energy is released by condensation is around one per cent of the global solar power – this is similar to the known stationary dissipative power of general atmospheric circulation. We conclude that condensation and evaporation merit attention as major, if previously overlooked, factors in driving atmospheric dynamics.

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