The Trouble with Water: Condensation, Circulation and Climate

The zonally-averaged relative humidity (in percent) of Earth’s atmosphere for boreal summer and boreal winter (blue shading) and equivalent potential temperature (red contours).

This article discussesl a few of the problems that arise in geophysical fluid dynamics and climate that are associated with the presence of moisture in the air, its condensation and release of latent heat.

Our main focus is Earth's atmosphere but we also discuss how these problems might manifest themselves on other planetary bodies, with particular attention to Titan where methane takes on the role of water.

GFD has traditionally been concerned with understanding the very basic problems that lie at the foundation of dynamical meteorology and ocean\-ography. Conventionally, and a little ironically, the subject mainly considers `dry' fluids, meaning it does not concern itself overly much with phase changes. The subject is often regarded as dry in another way, because it does not consider problems perceived as relevant to the real world, such as clouds or rainfall, which have typically been the province of complicated numerical models. Those models often rely on parameterizations of unresolved processes, parameterizations that may work very well but that often have a semi-empirical basis.

The consequent dichotomy between the foundations and the applications prevents progress being made that has both a secure basis in scientific understanding and a relevance to the Earth's climate, especially where moisture is concerned. The dichotomy also inhibits progress in understanding the climate of other planets, where observations are insufficient to tune the parameterizations that weather and climate models for Earth rely upon, and a more fundamental approach is called for. Here we discuss four diverse examples of the problems with moisture: the determination of relative humidity and cloudiness; the transport of water vapor and its possible change under global warming; the moist shallow water equations and the Madden-Julian Oscillation; and the hydrology cycle on other planetary bodies.

Geoffrey K. Vallis
Comments: 20 pages, 12 figures
Subjects: Atmospheric and Oceanic Physics (; Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)
Journal reference: Eur.\ Phys. J. Plus, DOI :10.1140/epjp/s13360-020-00493-7 2020
DOI: 10.1140/epjp/s13360-020-00493-7
Cite as: arXiv:2006.02364 [] (or arXiv:2006.02364v1 [] for this version)
Submission history
From: Geoff Vallis
[v1] Wed, 3 Jun 2020 16:28:09 UTC (4,460 KB)

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