Glossary of Weather Terms



Absolute humidity The mass of water vapor
in a given volume of air. It represents the density of water vapor in the

Absolute zero A temperature of -273ºC,
-460ºF, or 0ºK. Theoretically, there is no molecular motion at this

Absorptivity The efficiency of radiation

Acclimatization The gradual adjustment of
the body to new climatic or other environmental conditions, for example,
the adjustment to low levels of oxygen at high altitudes.

Accretion The growth of a precipitation
particle by the collision of an ice crystal or snowflake with a supercooled
liquid droplet that freezes upon impact.

Actual evapotranspiraton The rate of water
lost from vegetation and soil, ordinarily at a slower rate than the potential

Actual vapor pressure See vapor pressure.

Adiabatic process A process that takes place
without a transfer of heat between the system (such as an air parcel) and
its surroundings. In an adiabatic process compression always results in
warming, and expansion results in cooling.

Advection The horizontal transfer of any
atmospheric property by the wind.

Advection fog Occurs when warm, moist air
moves over a cold surface and the air cools to below its dew point.

Aerovane A device that resembles a wind
vane with a propeller at one end. Used to indicate wind speed and direction.

Air density Mass per unit volume of air;
about 1.275 km per cubic meter at 0ºC and 1000 millibars.

Air mass A large expanse of air having similar
temperature and humidity at any given height.

Air pressure The cumulative force exerted
on any surface by the molecules composing air.

Albedo The percent of radiation returning
from a surface compared to that which strikes it.

Altimeter An instrument that indicates the
altitude of an object above a fixed level. Pressure altimeters use an aneroid
barometer with a scale graduated in altitude instead of pressure.

Altocumulus A middle cloud, usually white
or gray. Often occurs in layers or patches with wavy, rounded masses or

Altocumulus castellanus An altocumulus showing
vertical development, individual cloud elements have towerlike tops, often
in the shape of tiny castles.

Altocumulus lenticularis A lens-shaped altocumulus
cloud; a mountain-wave cloud generated by the disturbance of horizontal
airflow caused by a prominent mountain range.

Altostratus A middle cloud composed of gray
or bluish sheets or layers of uniform appearance. In the thinner regions,
the sun or moon usually appears dimly visible.

Ambient air The air surrounding a cloud,
or the air surrounding rising or sinking air parcels.

Ambient temperature Temperature of the surrounding
(ambient) air.

Anemometer An instrument designed to measure
wind speed.

Aneroid barometer An instrument designed
to measure atmospheric pressure. It contains no liquid.

Annual range of temperature The difference
between the warmest and coldest months at any given location.

Anomalies Departures of temperature, precipitation,
or other weather elements from long-term averages.

Arctic air A very cold and dry air mass
that forms primarily in winter and the northern interior of North America.

Atmospheric window A region of the electromagnetic
spectrum from 8 to 12 µm where the atmosphere is transparent to radiation.

Autumnal equinox The equinox at which the
sun approaches the Southern Hemisphere and passes directly over the equator.
Occurs around September 23.


Barograph A recording instrument that provides
a continuous trace of air pressure variation with time.

Barometer An instrument that measures atmospheric
pressure. The two most common barometers are the mercury barometer and the
aneroid barometer.

Beaufort scale A scale of wind strength
based on visual assessment of the effects of wind on seas and vegetation.

Black body A hypothetical object that absorbs
all of the radiation that strikes it. It also emits radiation at a maximum
rate for its given temperature.

Blizzard A severe weather condition characterized
by low temperatures and strong winds (greater than 32 mi/hr) bearing a
great amount of snow. When these conditions continue after the falling
snow has ended, it is termed a ground blizzard.

Bora A cold katabatic wind that originates
in Yugoslavia and flows onto the coastal plain of the Adriatic Sea.

Bowen ratio The ratio of energy available
for sensible heating to energy available for latent heating.

Boyle’s law When the temperature is held
constant, the pressure and density of an ideal gas are directly proportional.


Ceilometer An instrument that automatically
records cloud height.

Centrifugal force A force directed outward,
away from the center of a rotating object; equal in magnitude to the centripetal
force but in the opposite direction.

Centripetal force An inward-directed force
that confines an object to a circular path; equal in magnitude to the centrifugal
force but in the opposite direction.

Charles’s law With constant pressure, the
temperature of an ideal gas is inversely proportional to the density of
the gas.

Chinook A warm, dry wind on the eastern
side of the Rocky Mountains. In the Alps, the wind is called a Foehn.

Cirrocumulus A high cloud that appears as
a white patch of cloud without shadows. It consists of very small elements
in the form of grains or ripples.

Cirrostratus A high cloud appearing as a
whitish veil that may totally cover the sky. Often produces halo phenomena.

Cirrus A high cloud composed of ice crystals
in the form of thin, white, featherlike clouds in patches, filaments, or
narrow bands.

Climate The accumulation of daily and seasonal
weather events over a long period of time. A description of aggregate weather
conditions; the sum of all statistical weather information that helps describe
a place or region.

Cloud base The lowest portion of a cloud.

Cloudburst Any sudden and heavy rain shower.

Cloud cover The amount of the sky obscured
by clouds when observed at a particular location.

Cloud deck The top of a cloud layer, usually
viewed from an aircraft.

Cloud seeding The introduction of artificial
substances (usually silver iodide or dry ice) into a cloud for the purpose
of either modifying its development or increasing its precipitation.

Coalescence The merging of cloud droplets
into a single larger droplet.

Cold fog See Supercooled cloud.

Cold front The leading edge of a cold air

Condensation Process by which water changes
phase from a vapor to a liquid.

Condensation nuclei Small particles in the
atmosphere that serve as the core of tiny condensing cloud droplets. These
may be dust, salt, or other material.

Conduction The transfer of heat by molecular
activity from one substance to another, or through a substance. Transfer
is always from warmer to colder regions.

Continental air mass An air mass that forms
over land; it is normally relatively dry.

Continental Climate A climate lacking marine
influence and characterized by more extreme temperatures than in marine
climates: therefore, it has a relatively high annual temperature range
for its latitude.

Continental polar air Relatively dry air
mass that develops over the northern interior of North America; very cold
in winter and mild in summer.

Continental tropical air Warm, dry air mass
that forms over the subtropical deserts of the south-western United States.

Contrail (condensation trail) A cloudlike
streamer frequently seen forming behind aircraft flying in clear, cold,
humid air.

Convection Motions in a fluid that result
in the transport and mixing of the fluid’s properties. In meteorology,
convection usually refers to atmospheric motions that are predominantly
vertical, such as rising air currents due to surface heating. The rising
of heated surface air and the sinking of cooler air aloft is often called
free convection. (Compare with forced convection.)

Convective condensation level (CCL) The
level above the surface marking the base of a cumiliform cloud that is
forming due to surface heating and rising thermals.

Convergence An atmospheric condition that
exists when the winds cause a horizontal net inflow of air into a specified

Cooling degree-day
A form of degree-day used in estimating the amount of energy necessary
to reduce the effective temperature of warm air. A cooling degree-day is
a day on which the average temperature is one degree above a desired base

Coriolis effect A deflective force arising
from the rotation of the earth on its axis; affects principally synoptic-scale
and global-scale winds. Winds are deflected to the right of the initial
direction in the Northern Hemisphere, and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere.

Crepuscular rays Alternating light and dark
bands of light that appear to fan out from the sun’s position, usually
at twilight.

Cumulonimbus An exceptionally dense and
vertically developed cloud, often with a top in the shape of an anvil.
The cloud is frequently accompanied by heavy showers, lightning, thunder,
and sometimes hail. It is also known as a thunderstorm cloud.

Cumulus A cloud in the form of individual,
detached domes or towers that are usually dense and well defined. It has
a flat base with a bulging upper part that often resembles cauliflower.
Cumulus clouds of fair weather are called cumulus humilis. Those that exhibit
much vertical growth are called cumulus congestur or towering cumulus.

Cumulus Congestus An upward building convective
cloud with vertical development between that of a cumulus cloud and a cumulonimbus.

Cup anemometer An instrument used to monitor
wind-speed. Wind rotation of cups generates and electric current calibrated
in wind speed.

Cutoff high Anticyclonic circulation system
that separates from the prevailing westerly airflow and therefore remains

Cutoff low Cyclonic circulation system that
separates from the prevailing westerly airflow and therefore remains stationary.


Daily range of temperature The difference
between the maximum and minimum temperatures for any given day.

Degree days Computed
from each day’s mean temperature (max+min/2). For each degree that a day’s
mean temperature is below or above a reference temperature is counted as
one degree day.

Density The ratio of the mass of a substance
to the volume occupied by it.

Deposition A process that occurs in subfreezing
air when water vapor changes directly to ice without becoming a liquid
first. (Also called sublimation in meteorology.)

Deposition nuclei Tiny particles in the
atmosphere that serve as the core of tiny ice crystals as water vapor changes
to the solid form. These are also called ice nuclei.

Desert One of two types of dry climate-the
driest of the dry climates.

Dew Water that has condensed onto objects
near the ground when their temperatures have fallen below the dew point
of the surface air.

Dew point (dew-point temperature) The temperature
to which air must be cooled (at constant pressure and constant water vapor
content) for saturation to occur. When the dew point falls below freezing
it is called the frost point.

Diffraction The bending of light around
objects, such as cloud and fog droplets, producing fringes of light and
dark or colored bands.

Diffuse insolation Solar radiation that
is scattered or reflected by atmospheric components (clouds, for example)
to the earth’s surface.

Direct insolation Solar radiation that is
transmitted directly through the atmosphere to the earth’s surface without
interacting with atmospheric components.

Divergence An atmospheric condition that
exists when the winds cause a horizontal net outflow of air from a specific

Downbursts A severe localized downdraft that
can be experienced beneath a severe thunderstorm. (Compare Microburst)

Downdraft Downward moving air, usually within
a thunderstorm cell.

Drainage basin A fixed geographical region
from which a river and its tributaries drain water.

Drizzle Small drops between 0.2 and 0.5
mm in diameter that fall slowly and reduce visibility more than light rain.

Drought A period of abnormally dry weather
sufficiently long enough to cause serious effects on agriculture and other
activities in the affected area.

Dry adiabatic rate The rate of change of
temperature in a rising or descending unsaturated air parcel. The rate
of adiabatic cooling or warming is 10ºC per 1000 m (5.5ºF per
1000 ft).

Dry climate A climate in which yearly precipitation
is not as great as the potential loss of water by evaporation.

Dust devil (or whirlwind) A small but rapidly
rotating wind made visible by the dust, sand, and debris it picks up from
the surface. It develops best on clear, dry, hot afternoons.


Eddy A small volume of air (or any fluid)
that behaves differently from the larger flow in which it exists.

Effective emissivity A correction factor,
dependent on the radiational characteristics of the earth -atmosphere system,
that permits application of black body radiation laws to the earth-atmosphere

Emissivity The fractional amount of radiation
emitted by a given object or substance in comparison to the amount emitted
by a perfect emitter.

Emittance The rate at which a black body
radiates energy across all wave-lengths.

Entrainment The mixing of environmental
air into a preexisting air current or cloud so that the environmental air
becomes part of the current or cloud.

Environmental lapse rate The rate of decrease
of temperature with elevation. It is most often measured with a radiosonde.

Equilibrium vapor pressure The necessary
vapor pressure around liquid water that allows the water to remain in equilibrium
with its environment. Also called saturation vapor pressure.

Equinox The time when the sun crosses the
plane of the earth’s equator occurring about March 21 and September 22.

Evaporation The process by which a liquid
changes into a gas.

Evapotranspiration Vaporization of water
through direct evaporation from wet surfaces and the release of water vapor
by vegetation.

Evaporation fog Fog produced when sufficient
water vapor is added to the air by evaporation. The two common types are
steam fog, which forms when cold air moves over warm water, and frontal
fog, which forms as warm raindrops evaporate in a cool air mass.

Exosphere The outermost portion of the atmosphere.


Fall Freeze date The
date of occurrence in the fall of the first minimum at or below a temperature

Fall streaks Falling ice crystals that evaporate
before reaching the ground.

Foehn See Chinook.

Fog A cloud with its base at the earth’s
surface. It reduces visibility to below 1 km.

Forced convection On a small scale, a form
of mechanical stirring taking place when twisting eddies of air are able
to mix.

Free convection Convection triggered by
intense solar heating of the earth’s surface.

Freeze A condition
occurring over a widespread area when the surface air temperature remains
below freezing for a sufficient time to damage certain agricultural crops.
A freeze most often occurs as cold air is advected into a region, causing
freezing conditions to exist in a deep layer of surface air. Also called
advection frost.

Freeze free season
The number of days between the last spring freeze date and the first fall
freeze date.

Freezing rain and freezing drizzle Rain
or drizzle that falls in liquid form and then freezes upon striking a cold
object or ground. Both can produce a coating of ice on objects which is
called glaze.

Front The transition zone between two distinct
air masses.

Frontal fog See Evaporation fog.

Frost (also called hoarfrost) A covering
of ice produced by deposition (sublimation) on exposed surfaces when the
air temperature falls below the frost point (the dew point is below freezing).

Frost point See Dew point.

Frozen dew The transformation of liquid
dew into tiny beads of ice when the air temperature drops below freezing.

Funnel cloud A rotating conelike cloud that
extends down-ward from the base of a thunderstorm. When it reaches the
surface it is called a tornado.


Geostrophic wind A theoretical horizontal
wind blowing in a straight path, parallel to the isobars or contours, at
a constant speed. The geostrophic wind results when the Coriolis force
exactly balances the horizontal pressure gradient force.

Glaciation The conversion of all the supercooled
liquid water in a cloud into ice crystals, thus reducing the growth rate
of ice crystals and hail.

Glaciated cloud A cloud or portion of a
cloud where only ice crystals exist.

Glaze A coating of ice on objects formed
when supercooled rain freezes on contact. A storm that produces glaze is
called an icing storm.

Glory Colored rings that appear around the
shadow of an object.

Graupel See Snow pellets

Green flash A small, green color that occasionally
appears on the upper part of the sun as it rises or sets.

Ground fog See Radiation fog.

Growing degree-day
A form of the degree-day used as a guide for crop planting and for estimating
crop maturity dates.

Growing season The
number of days between the last spring freeze date and the first fall freeze


Haboob A dust or sandstorm that forms as
cold downdrafts from a thunderstorm turbulently lift dust and sand into
the air.

Hail Solid precipitation in the form of
chunks or balls of ice with diameters greater than 5 mm. The stones fall
from cumulonimbus clouds.

Hailstones Transparent or partially opaque
particles of ice that range in size from that of a pea to that of golf

Hair hygrometer An instrument used to monitor
relative humidity by measuring the changes in the length of human hair
that accompany humidity variations.

Halos Rings or arcs that encircle the sun
or moon when seen through an ice crystal cloud or a sky filled with falling
ice crystals. Halos are produced by refraction of light.

Haze Fine dry or wet dust or salt particles
dispersed through a portion of the atmosphere. Individually these are not
visible but cumulatively they will diminish visibility.

Heat A form of energy transferred between
systems by virtue of their temperature differences.

Heat capacity The ratio of the heat absorbed
(or released) by a system to the corresponding temperature rise (or fall).

Heat index (HI) An index that combines air
temperature and relative humidity to determine an apparent temperature-how
hot it actually feels.

Heat of fusion Heat released when water
changes phase from liquid to solid; 80 calories per gram

Heat of melting Heat required to change
the phase of water from solid to liquid; 80 calories per gram.

Heating degree-day
A form of the degree-day used as an index for fuel consumption. Needed
on days when average air temperature falls below 69 ºF (18 ºC);
computed by subtracting the day’s average temperature from 65 ºF.

Heat lightning Distant lightning that illuminates
the sky but is too far away for its thunder to be heard.

Heiligenschein A faint white ring surrounding
the shadow of an observer’s head on a dew-covered lawn.

Heterosphere The atmosphere above 80 km
(50 mi) where gases are stratified, with concentrations of the heavier
gases decreasing more rapidly with altitude than concentrations of the
lighter gases.

High inversion fog A fog that lifts above
the surface but does not completely dissipate because of a strong inversion
(usually subsidence) that exists above the fog layer.

Highland climate Complex pattern of climate
conditions associated with mountains. Highland climates are characterized
by large differences that occur over short distances.

Hoarfrost Fernlike crystals of ice that
form by deposition of water vapor on twigs, tree branches, and other vegetation.

Homosphere The atmosphere up to 80 km (50
mi) in which the proportionality of principal gaseous constituents, such
as oxygen and nitrogen, is constant.

Humid continental climate A relatively severe
climate characteristic of broad continents in the middle latitudes between
approximately 40 and 50º north latitude. This climate is not found
in the southern hemisphere, where the middle latitudes are dominated by
the oceans.

Humid Subtropical Climate A climate generally
located on the eastern side of a continent and characterized by hot, sultry
summers and cool winters.

Hurricane A severe tropical cyclone having
winds in excess of 64 knots (74 mi/hr).

Hydrograph An instrument that provides a
continuous trace of relative humidity with time.

Hygrometer An instrument designed to measure
the air’s water vapor content. The sensing part of the instrument can be
hair (hair hygrometer), a plate coated with carbon (electrical hygrometer),
or an infrared sensor (infrared hygrometer).

Hypothermia The deterioration in one’s mental
and physical condition brought on by a rapid lowering of human body temperature.


Ice Cap Climate A climate that has no monthly
means above freezing and supports no vegetative cover except in a few scattered
high mountain areas. This climate, with its perpetual ice and snow, is
confined largely to the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.

Ice fog A type of fog composed of tiny suspended
ice particles that forms at very low temperatures.

Ice nuclei Particles that act as nuclei
for the formation of ice crystals in the atmosphere.

Ice pellets See Sleet

Indian summer An unseasonably warm spell
with clear skies near the middle of autumn. Usually follows a substantial
period of cool weather.

Infrared radiation Electromagnetic radiation
with wavelengths between about 0.7 and 1000 µm. This radiation is
longer than visible radiation but shorter than microwave radiation.

Insolation The incoming solar radiation
that reaches the earth and the atmosphere.

Intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) The
boundary zone separating the northeast trade winds of the Northern Hemisphere
from the southeast trade winds of the Southern Hemisphere.

Inversion An increase in air temperature
with height.

Ion An electrically charged atom, molecule,
or particle.

Ionosphere An electrified region of the
upper atmosphere where fairly large concentrations of ions and free electrons

Iridescence Brilliant spots or borders of
colors, most often red and green, observed in clouds up to about 30º
from the sun.

Isobar A line connecting points of equal

Isotach A line connecting points of equal
wind speed.

Isotherm A line connecting points of equal
wind temperature.


January thaw A period of relatively mild
weather around January 20 to 23 that occurs primarily in New England; an
example of a singularity in the climatic record.

Jet stream Relatively strong winds concentrated
within a narrow band in the atmosphere.


Katabatic wind Any wind blowing downslope.
Usually cold.


Lake breeze A wind blowing onshore from
the surface of a lake.

Lake-effect snows Localized snowstorms that
form on the downwind side of a lake. Such storms are common in late fall
and early winter near the Great Lakes as cold, dry air picks up moisture
and warmth from the unfrozen bodies of water.

Land breeze A coastal breeze that blows
from land to sea, usually at night.

Lapse rate The rate at which an atmospheric
variable (usually temperature) decreases with height. (See Environmental
lapse rate.)

Latent heat The heat that is either released
or absorbed by a unit mass of a substance when it undergoes a change of
state, such as during evaporation, condensation, or sublimation.

Lenticular cloud A cloud in the shape of
a lens.

Lightning A visible electrical discharge
produced by thunderstorms.

Longwave radiation A term most often used
to describe the infrared energy emitted by the earth and the atmosphere.


Magnetosphere The region around the earth
in which the earth’s magnetic field plays a dominant part in controlling
the physical processes that take place.

Mammatus clouds Clouds that look like pouches
hanging from the underside of a cloud.

Marine climate A climate dominated by the
ocean, because of the moderating effect of water, sites having this climate
are considered relatively mild.

Maritime air mass An air mass that originates
over the ocean. These air masses are relatively humid.

Maritime polar air Cool, humid air mass
that forms over the cold ocean waters of the North Pacific and North Atlantic.

Maritime tropical air Warm, humid air mass
that forms over tropical and subtropical oceans.

Mean annual temperature The average temperature
at any given location for the entire year.

Mesoscale The scale of meteorological phenomena
that ranges in size from a few km to about 100 km. It includes local winds,
thunderstorms, and tornadoes.

Mesosphere The atmospheric layer between
the stratosphere and the thermosphere. Located at an average elevation
between 50 and 80 km above the earth’s surface.

Meteorology The study of the atmosphere
and atmospheric phenomena as well as the atmosphere’s interaction with
the earth’s surface, oceans, and life in general.

Microburst A strong localized downdraft
less than 4 km wide that occurs beneath severe thunderstorms. A strong
downdraft greater than 4 km across is called a downburst.

Microclimate The climate structure of the
air space near the surface of the earth.

Microscale The smallest scale of atmospheric

Millibar(mb) A unit for expressing atmospheric
pressure. Sea level pressure is normally close to 1013 mb.

Mirage A refraction phenomenon that makes
an object appear to be displaced from its true position. When an object
appears higher than it actually is, it is called a superior image. When
an object appears lower than it actually is, it is an inferior mirage.

Mist Very thin fog in which visibility is
greater than 1.0 km (0.62 mi).

Mistral A katabatic wind that flows from
the Alps down the Rhone River Valley of France to the Mediterranean coast.

Mixing ratio The ratio of the mass of water
vapor in a given volume of air to the mass of dry air.

Moist adiabatic rate The rate of change
of temperature in a rising or descending saturated air parcel. The rate
of cooling or warming varies but a common value of 6ºC per 1000 m
(3.3ºF per 1000 ft) is used.

Molecular viscosity The small-scale internal
fluid friction that is due to the random motion of the molecules within
a smooth-flowing fluid, such as air.

Mountain and valley breeze A local wind
system of a mountain valley that blows downhill (mountain breeze) at night
and uphill (valley breeze) during the day.


Nacreous clouds Clouds of unknown composition
that have a soft, pearly luster and that form at altitudes about 25 to
30 km above the earth’s surface. They are also called mother-of-pearl clouds.

Nimbostratus A dark, gray cloud characterized
by more or less continuously falling precipitation. It is not accompanied
by lightning, thunder, or hail.

Noctilucent clouds Wavy, thin, bluish-white
clouds that are best seen at twilight in polar latitudes. They form at
altitudes about 80 to 90 km above the surface.

Nocturnal inversion See Radiation inversion.


Offshore breeze A breeze that blows from
the land out over the water. Opposite of an onshore breeze.

Onshore breeze A breeze that blows from
the water onto the land. Opposite of an offshore breeze.

Orographic uplift The lifting of air over
a topographic barrier. Clouds that form in this lifting process are called
orographic clouds.

Orographic precipitation Rainfall or snowfall
from clouds, induced by topographic uplift.


Permafrost A layer of soil beneath the earth’s
surface that remains frozen throughout the year.

Photodissociation The splitting of a molecule
by a photon.

Photon A discrete quantity of energy that
can be thought of as a packet of electromagnetic radiation traveling at
the speed of light.

Pileus cloud A smooth cloud in the form
of a cap. Occurs above, or is attached to, the top of a cumuliform cloud.

Polar air mass A cold air mass that forms
in a high-latitude source region.

Polar climates Climates in which the mean
temperature of the warmest month is below 10ºC; climates that are
too cold to support the growth of trees.

Potential energy The energy that a body
possesses by virtue of its position with respect to other bodies in the
field of gravity.

Potential evapotranspiration (PE) The amount
of moisture that, if it were available, would be removed from a given land
area by evaporation and transpiration.

Potential temperature The temperature that
a parcel of dry air would have if it were brought dry adiabatically from
its original position to a pressure of 1000 mb.

Precipitable water vapor The depth of water
that would result if all the vapor in the atmosphere above a location were
condensed into liquid water.

Precipitation Any form of water particles-liquid
or solid-that falls from the atmosphere and reaches the ground.

Prevailing wind The wind direction most
frequently observed during a given period.

Probability forecast
A forecast of the probability of occurrence of one or more of a mutually
exclusive set of weather conditions.

Psychrometer An instrument used to measure
the water vapor content of the air. It consists of two thermometers (dry
bulb and wet bulb). After whirling the instrument, the dew point and relative
humidity can be obtained with the aid of tables.

Pyranometer An instrument that measures
the amount of radiation.



Radar An instrument useful for remote sensing
of meteorological phenomena. It operates by sending radio waves and monitoring
those returned by such reflecting objects as raindrops within clouds.

Radiant energy (radiation) Energy propagated
in the form of electromagnetic waves. These waves do not need molecules
to propagate them, and in a vacuum they travel at nearly 300,000 km per

Radiation fog Fog produced over land when
radiational cooling reduces the air temperature to or below its dew point.
It is also known as ground fog and valley fog.

Radiation inversion An increase in temperature
with height due to radiational cooling of the earth’s surface. Also called
a nocturnal inversion.

Radiosonde A balloon-borne instrument that
measures and transmits pressure, temperature, and humidity to a ground-based
receiving station.

Rain Precipitation in the form of liquid
water drops that have diameters greater than that of drizzle.

Rain gage A device-usually a cylindrical
container-for measuring rain-fall.

Rain Shadow The region on the leeside of
a mountain where the precipitation is noticeable less than on the windward

Rawinsonde An instrument carried by weather
balloons to measure the temperature, humidity, pressure, and winds of the

Reflection The process whereby a surface
turns back a portion of the radiation that strikes it.

Refraction The bending of light as it passes
from one medium to another

Refractive index The ratio of the speed
of light in a vacuum to its speed in a transparent medium.

Relative humidity The ratio of the amount
of water vapor actually in the air compared to the amount of water vapor
the air can hold at the particular temperature and pressure. The ratio
of the air’s actual vapor pressure to its saturation vapor pressure.

Rime ice A white, granular deposit of ice
formed by the freezing of water drops when they come in contact with an


Santa Ana The local name given a foehn wind
in southern California.

Saturation vapor pressure The maximum amount
of water vapor necessary to keep moist air in equilibrium with a surface
of pure water or ice. It represents the maximum amount of water vapor that
the air can hold at any given temperature and pressure. (See Equilibrium
vapor pressure.)

Scattering The process by which small particles
in the atmosphere deflect radiation from its path into different directions.

Scintillation The apparent twinkling of
a star due to its light passing through regions of differing air densities
in the atmosphere.

Sea breeze A coastal local wind that blows
from the ocean onto the land. The leading edge of the breeze is termed
a sea breeze front.

Sea level pressure The atmospheric pressure
at mean sea level.

Semiarid See Steppe.

Sensible heat transfer Movement of heat
from one place to another as a consequence of conduction or convection
or both.

Sensible temperature The sensation of temperature
that the human body feels in contrast to the actual temperature of the
environment as measured with a thermometer.

Shear See wind shear.

Sheet lightning A fairly bright lightning
flash from distant thunderstorms that illuminates a portion of the cloud.

Shortwave radiation A term most often used
to describe the radiant energy emitted from the sun, in the visible and
near ultraviolet wavelengths.

Shower Intermittent precipitation from a
cumuliform cloud, usually of short duration but often heavy.

Sleet A type of precipitation consisting
of transparent pellets of ice 5 mm or less in diameter. Same as ice pellets.

Smog Originally smog meant a mixture of
smoke and fog. Today, smog means air that has restricted visibility due
to pollution, or pollution formed in the presence of sunlight-photochemical

Snow Solid precipitation in the form of
minute ice flakes that occur below 0ºC.

Snowflake An aggregate of ice crystals that
falls from a cloud

Snow flurries Light showers of snow that
fall intermittently.

Snow grains Precipitation in the form of
very small, opaque grains of ice. The solid equivalent of drizzle.

Snow pellets White, opaque, approximately
round ice particles between 2 and 5 mm in diameter that form in a cloud
either from the sticking together of ice crystals or from the process of

Snow rollers A cylindrical spiral of snow
shaped somewhat like a child’s muff and produced by the wind.

Snow squall (shower) An intermittent heavy
shower of snow that greatly reduces visibility.

Solstice Either of the two times of the
year when the sun is the greatest distance from the celestial equator,
occurring about June 22 and December 22. See winter solstice and summer

Southern oscillation The reversal of surface
air pressure at opposite ends of the tropical Pacific Ocean that occur
during El Nino events.

Specific heat The ratio of the heat absorbed
(or released) by the unit mass of the system to the corresponding temperature
rise (or fall).

Specific humidity The ratio of the mass
of water vapor in a given parcel to the total mass of air in the parcel.

Spontaneous nucleation (freezing) The freezing
of pure water without the benefit of any nuclei.

Spring freeze date
The date of occurrence in the spring of the last minimum at or below
a temperature threshold.

Squall line Any nonfrontal line or band
of active thunderstorms.

Station pressure The actual air pressure
computed at the observing station.

Steam fog See Evaporation fog.

Steppe One of the two types of dry climate.
A marginal and more humid variant of the desert that separates it from
bordering humid climates. Steppe also refers to the short-grass vegetation
associated with this semiarid climate.

Storm surge An abnormal rise of the sea
along a shore. Primarily due to the winds of a storm, especially a hurricane.

Stratocumulus A low cloud, predominantly
stratiform with low, lumpy, rounded masses, often with blue sky between

Stratopause The boundary between the stratosphere
and the mesosphere.

Stratosphere The layer of the atmosphere
above the troposphere and below the mesosphere (between 10 km and 50 km),
generally characterized by an increase in temperature with height.

Stratus A low, gray cloud layer with a rather
uniform base whose precipitation is most commonly drizzle.

Subarctic climate A climate found north
of the humid continental climate and south of the polar climate and characterized
by bitterly cold winters and short cool summers. Places within this climatic
realm experience the highest annual temperature ranges on earth.

Sublimation The process whereby ice changes
directly into water vapor without melting. In meteorology, sublimation
can also mean the transformation of water vapor into ice. (See Deposition.)

Subsidence The slow sinking of air, usually
associated wit high-pressure areas.

Subsidence inversion A temperature inversion
produced by the adiabatic warming of a layer of sinking air.

Summer solstice Approximately June 22 in
the Northern Hemisphere when the sun is highest in the sky and directly
overhead at latitude 23.5º N, the Tropic of Cancer.

Sundog A colored luminous spot produced
by refraction of light through ice crystals that appears on either side
of the sun. Also called parhelion.

Sun pillar A vertical streak of light extending
above (or below) the sun. It is produced by the reflection of sunlight
of ice crystals.

Supersaturated air A condition that occurs
in the atmosphere when the relative humidity is greater that 100 percent.

Surface inversion See Radiation inversion

Synoptic scale The typical weather map scale
that shows features such as high- and low-pressure areas and fronts over
a distance spanning a continent. Also called the cyclonic scale.


Taiga The northern coniferous forest; also
a name applied to the subarctic climate.

Temperature The degree of hotness or coldness
of a substance as measured by a thermometer. It is also a measure of the
average speed or kinetic energy of the atoms and molecules in a substance.

Temperature inversion An extremely stable
air layer in which temperature increases with altitude, the inverse of
the usual temperature profile in the troposphere.

Terminal velocity The constant speed obtained
by a falling object when the upward drag on the object balances the downward
force of gravity.

Thermal A small, rising parcel of warm air
produced when the earth’s surface is heated unevenly.

Thermograph A recording instrument that
gives a continuous trace of temperature with time.

Thermometer An instrument used to measure

Thermosphere The atmospheric layer above
the mesosphere. It extends from 90 km to outer space.

Thunder The sound due to rapidly expanding
gases along the channel of a lightning discharge.

Tipping bucket rain gage A device that accumulates
rainfall in increments of 0.01 in. by containers that alternately fill
and empty (tip).

Tornado An intense, rotating column of air
that protrudes from a cumulonimbus cloud in the shape of a funnel or a
rope and touches the ground. (See Funnel cloud.)

Trade winds The winds that occupy most of
the tropics and blow from the subtropical highs to the equatorial low.

Transpiration The release of water vapor
to the atmosphere by plants.

Tropical air mass A warm-to-hot air mass
that forms in the subtropics.

Tropical depression A mass of thunderstorms
and clouds generally with a cyclonic wind circulation of between 20 and
34 knots

Tropical disturbance An organized mass of
thunderstorms with a slight cyclonic wind circulation of less than 20 knots.

Tropical storm Organized thunderstorms with
a cyclonic wind circulation between 35 and 64 knots.

Tropopause The boundary between the troposphere
and the stratosphere.

Troposphere The layer of the atmosphere
extending from the earth’s surface up to the tropopause (about 10 km above
the ground).

Tundra Climate Found almost exclusively in
the northern hemisphere or at high altitudes in many mountainous regions.
A treeless climatic realm of sedges, grasses, mosses, and lichens that
is dominated by a long, bitterly cold winter.

Turbulence Any irregular or disturbed flow
in the atmosphere that produces gusts and eddies.

Twilight The time immediately before sunrise
and after sunset when the sky remain illuminated.

Typhoon A hurricane that forms in the western
Pacific Ocean.


Ultraviolet radiation Electromagnetic radiation
with wave-lengths longer than X-rays but shorter than visible light.

Upslope fog Fog formed as moist, stable
air flows upward over a topographic barrier.

Upslope precipitation Precipitation that
forms due to moist, stable air gradually rising along an elevated plain.
Upslope precipitation is common over the western Great Plains, especially
east of the Rock Mountains.

Upwelling The rising of water (usually cold)
toward the surface from the deeper regions of a body of water.

Urban heat island The increased air temperatures
in urban areas as contrasted to the cooler surrounding rural areas.


Valley breeze See Mountain breeze.

Valley fog See Radiation fog.

Vapor pressure The pressure exerted by the
water vapor molecules in a given volume of air.

Vernal equinox The equinox at which the
sun approaches the Northern Hemisphere and passes directly over the equator.
Occurs around March 20.

Virga Precipitation that falls from a cloud
but evaporates before reaching the ground. (See Fall streaks.)

Virtual temperature An adjustment applied
to the real air temperature to account for a reduction in air density due
to the presence of water vapor.

Viscosity The resistance of fluid flow.

Visibility The greatest distance an observer
can see and identify prominent objects.

Visible light That portion of the electromagnetic
spectrum from 0.4 to 0.7 µm wavelengths that is visible.

Vorticity A measure of the spin of a fluid,
usually small air parcels. Absolute vorticity is the combined vorticity
due to the earth’s rotation and the vorticity due to the air’s circulation
relative to the earth. Relative vorticity is due to the curving of the
air flow and wind shear.


Wall Cloud A localized, persistent, often
abrupt lowering from a rain-free base. Wall clouds can range from a
fraction of a mile up to nearly five miles in diameter, and normally are
found on the south or southwest (inflow) side of the thunderstorm.
“Wall cloud” also is used occasionally in tropical meteorology to
describe the inner cloud wall surrounding the eye of a tropical cyclone,
but the proper term for this feature is eyewall.

Warm front The leading edge of a warm air

Water balance The comparison of actual and
potential evapotranspiration with the amount of precipitation, usually
on a monthly basis.

Water budget Balance sheet for the inputs
and outputs of water to and from the various global water reservoirs.

Water equivalent The depth of water that
would result from the melting of a snow sample. Typically about 10 inches
of snow will melt to 1 inch of water, producing a water equivalent of 10
to 1.

Weather The state of the atmosphere in terms
of such variables as temperature, cloudiness, precipitation, and radiation.

Weighing bucket rain gage A device that
is calibrated so that the weight of rainfall is recorded directly in terms
of rainfall in millimeters or in inches.

Wet-bulb depression The difference in degrees
between the air temperature (dry-bulb temperature) and the wet-bulb temperature.

Wet-bulb temperature The lowest temperature
that can be obtained by evaporating water into the air.

White frost Ice crystals that form on surfaces
instead of dew when the dew point is below freezing.

Wind chill equivalent temperature A theoretical
air temperature at which the heat loss from exposed skin under calm conditions
is equivalent to the heat loss at the actual air temperature and under
the actual wind speeds.

Wind-chill factor The cooling effect of
any combination of temperature and wind, expressed as the loss of body
heat. Also called wind-chill index.

Wind shear A difference in wind speed or
direction between two wind currents in the atmosphere.

Wind Vane An instrument used to determine
wind direction.

Windsock A large, conical, open bag designed
to indicate wind direction and relative speed; usually used at small airports.

Winter solstice Approximately December 22
in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun is lowest in the sky and directly
overhead at latitude 23.5ºS, the Tropic of Capricorn.





    C. Donald Ahrens, 1985. Meteorology Today. West Publishing Company,

    Frederick K. Lutgens, and Edward J. Tarbuck, 1995. The Atmosphere. Prentice-Hall
    Inc., 443-456.

    Joe R. Eagleman, 1980. Meteorology The Atmosphere in Action. Litton
    Educational Publishing Inc., 353-364.

    Joseph M. Moran, and Michael D. Morgan, 1986. Meteorology. Burgess Publishing,

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