Stratiform Precipitation in Regions of Convection: A Meteorological Paradox?

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  • 1 University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
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It was once generally thought that stratiform precipitation was something occurring primarily, if not exclusively, in middle latitudes—in baroclinic cyclones and fronts. Early radar observations in the Tropics, however, showed large radar echoes composed of convective rain alongside stratiform precipitation, with the stratiform echoes covering great areas and accounting for a large portion of the tropical rainfall. These observations seemed paradoxical, since stratiform precipitation should not have been occurring in the Tropics, where baroclinic cyclones do not occur. Instead it was falling from convection-generated clouds, generally thought to be too violent to be compatible with the layered, gently settling behavior of stratiform precipitation.

In meteorology, convection is a dynamic concept; specifically, it is the rapid, efficient, vigorous overturning of the atmosphere required to neutralize an unstable vertical distribution of moist static energy. Most clouds in the Tropics are convection-generated cumulonimbus. These cumulonimbus clouds contain an evolving pattern of newer and older precipitation. The young portions of the cumulonimbus are too violent to produce stratiform precipitation. In young, vigorous convective regions of the cumulonimbus, precipitation particles increase their mass by collection of cloud water, and the particles fall out in heavy showers, which appear on radar as vertically oriented convective “cells.” In regions of older convection, however, the vertical air motions are generally weaker, and the precipitation particles drift downward, with the particles increasing their mass by vapor diffusion. In these regions the radar echoes are stratiform, and typically these echoes occur adjacent to regions of younger convective showers. Thus, the stratiform and convective precipitation both occur within the same complex of convection-generated cumulonimbus cloud.

The feedbacks of the apparent heat source and moisture sink of tropical cumulonimbus convection to the large-scale dynamics of the atmosphere are distinctly separable by precipitation region. The part of the atmospheric response deriving from the areas of young, vigorous convective cells is two layered, with air converging into the active convection at low levels and diverging aloft. The older, weaker intermediary and stratiform precipitation areas induce a three-layered response, in which environmental air converges into the weak precipitation area at midlevels and diverges from it at lower and upper levels. If global precipitation data, such as that to be provided by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, are to be used to validate the heating patterns predicted by climate and general circulation models, algorithms must be applied to the precipitation data that will identify the two principal modes of heating, by separating the convective component of the precipitation from the remainder.

Corresponding author address: Robert A. Houze Jr., Dept. of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Box 351640, Seattle, WA 98195. E-mail: houze@atmos.Washington.edu

It was once generally thought that stratiform precipitation was something occurring primarily, if not exclusively, in middle latitudes—in baroclinic cyclones and fronts. Early radar observations in the Tropics, however, showed large radar echoes composed of convective rain alongside stratiform precipitation, with the stratiform echoes covering great areas and accounting for a large portion of the tropical rainfall. These observations seemed paradoxical, since stratiform precipitation should not have been occurring in the Tropics, where baroclinic cyclones do not occur. Instead it was falling from convection-generated clouds, generally thought to be too violent to be compatible with the layered, gently settling behavior of stratiform precipitation.

In meteorology, convection is a dynamic concept; specifically, it is the rapid, efficient, vigorous overturning of the atmosphere required to neutralize an unstable vertical distribution of moist static energy. Most clouds in the Tropics are convection-generated cumulonimbus. These cumulonimbus clouds contain an evolving pattern of newer and older precipitation. The young portions of the cumulonimbus are too violent to produce stratiform precipitation. In young, vigorous convective regions of the cumulonimbus, precipitation particles increase their mass by collection of cloud water, and the particles fall out in heavy showers, which appear on radar as vertically oriented convective “cells.” In regions of older convection, however, the vertical air motions are generally weaker, and the precipitation particles drift downward, with the particles increasing their mass by vapor diffusion. In these regions the radar echoes are stratiform, and typically these echoes occur adjacent to regions of younger convective showers. Thus, the stratiform and convective precipitation both occur within the same complex of convection-generated cumulonimbus cloud.

The feedbacks of the apparent heat source and moisture sink of tropical cumulonimbus convection to the large-scale dynamics of the atmosphere are distinctly separable by precipitation region. The part of the atmospheric response deriving from the areas of young, vigorous convective cells is two layered, with air converging into the active convection at low levels and diverging aloft. The older, weaker intermediary and stratiform precipitation areas induce a three-layered response, in which environmental air converges into the weak precipitation area at midlevels and diverges from it at lower and upper levels. If global precipitation data, such as that to be provided by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, are to be used to validate the heating patterns predicted by climate and general circulation models, algorithms must be applied to the precipitation data that will identify the two principal modes of heating, by separating the convective component of the precipitation from the remainder.

Corresponding author address: Robert A. Houze Jr., Dept. of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Box 351640, Seattle, WA 98195. E-mail: houze@atmos.Washington.edu
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