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Atmospheric Moisture

Stability of Air

Adiabatic temperature change is an important factor in determining the stability of the air. We can think of air stability as the tendency for air to rise or fall through the atmosphere under its own "power". Stable air has a tendency to resist movement. On the other hand, unstable air will easily rise. What gives air "power" to rise? The tendency for air to rise or fall depends on the adiabatic and environmental lapse rates.

Stable air Graph of stable conditions

Figure 7.12 Stable Atmospheric Conditions

Stable atmospheric conditions prevail when the environmental lapse rate is less than the saturated adiabatic rate. An example of this condition is shown in Figure 7.12. At the surface (0 meters) both the parcel of air (red line) and the air of the surrounding environment (blue line) have the same temperature. The surrounding air is changing its temperature at a rate of .65oC/100 meters. The parcel on this day is "dry" and will rise and cool at a temperature of 1oC/100 meters. After giving the parcel a slight upward push, it rises to a level of 1000 meters where it cools to a temperature of 20oC. A measurement of the air surrounding the parcel shows a temperature of  23.5oC. In other words, the parcel is colder (and more dense) than the surrounding air at 1000 meters. If the uplift mechanism ceased, the parcel of air would return to the surface.

Graph of unstable conditionsFigure 7.13 Unstable Atmospheric Conditions

Unstable air

Air is unstable when the environmental lapse rate is greater than the dry adiabatic rate. Under these conditions, a rising parcel of air is warmer and less dense than the air surrounding it at any given elevation. Figure 7.13 depicts unstable conditions. Follow up the graph for the rising parcel of air. Note that at any elevation above the surface the parcel temperature is higher than the air that surrounds it. Even as it reaches the dew point temperature at 2000 meters, the air remains warmer than the surrounding air. As a result it continues to rise and cool at the saturated adiabatic rate. Vertically developed clouds are likely to develop under unstable conditions such as this.


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For Citation: Ritter, Michael E. The Physical Environment: an Introduction to Physical Geography.
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