The mean radiational, dynamical and thermodynamical structure of the marine stratocumulus-topped mixed layers of the California coast is described for two days in June 1976 using data from the NCAR Electra aircraft. We suggest that the synoptic conditions found may be typical of about half of the shallow stratocumulus-topped boundary layers that occur in this region during summer. The inversion was low near the coast and increased in height to the west, consistent with the average westward increase in sea-surface temperature. North–south inversion height change was largely due to entrainment and mean mesoscale vertical motions. Below the inversion, strong winds (12–20 m s−1 from the north) and horizontal inhomogeneities resulted in large advection terms in mean field equations. The sloping inversion often produced large vertical shears of the actual and geostrophic wind velocities across the inversion. Because of low liquid-water contents (0.1 g kg−1), temperature and water vapor could be measured in cloud with in situ instrumentation without significant errors due to wetting.
The longwave radiative extinction length was found to be relatively short; 63% of the cloud-top jump in radiation flux occurred within 40 m. Radiative heat loss was largely balanced by shear-driven entrainment. Compositing vertical gradients provided by individual aircraft ascents and descents is shown to overestimate vertical gradients at the inversion.