An Introduction to Humidity
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Earth to have approximately 3,100 cubic miles of water in the air, mostly as water vapor, but also as clouds or precipitation at any one time.
Humidity is the condition of the atmosphere in relation to the water vapor it contains and is a fairly complicated subject to fully deal with, however a few brief notes will help you to understand enough of the subject for this particular purpose.
Water vapor is always present in the air in varying amounts, the amount that the air can hold depends on the temperature of the air. The higher the temperature the more water vapor the air can hold. Dew-Point is the temperature at which air containing a certain amount of water vapor becomes saturated; any further reduction in temperature would result in condensation.
What relative humidity means
The warmer air is, the more water vapor it can “hold.” Dew-Point is the measure of the amount of water vapor that is actually in the air. Relative humidity is the measure of the amount of water in the air, compared with the amount of water the air can hold at the temperature it happens to be when you measure it. To see how this works, let’s use the chart below which is adapted from the Meteorology Today by C. Donald Ahrens, published by West Publishing.
|Air temperature in degrees C||Water vapor air can hold at this temperature|
|30 degrees||30 grams per cubic meter of air|
|20 degrees||17 grams per cubic meter of air|
|10 degrees||9 grams per cubic meter of air|
These numbers, which apply to air at sea level pressure, are based on measurements over the years. They are basic physical facts.
Now, let’s see how dew point and relative humidity work. Imagine that at 3 p.m. you measure the air’s temperature to be 30 degrees and you measure its humidity at 9 grams per cubic meter of air. What would happen if this air cooled to 10 degrees with no water vapor being added or taken away? As the air cools to 10 degrees the air becomes saturated; that is, it can’t hold any more water vapor than 9 grams per cubic meter. Cool the air just a tiny bit more and its water vapor will begin condensing to form clouds, fog or dew – depending on whether the air is high above the ground, just above the ground or right at the ground. Back at 3 p.m., when we made the measurements, we could say that the air’s dew point was 10 degrees C. That is, if this particular air were cooled to 10 degrees at ground level, its humidity would begin condensing to form dew.
How about relative humidity? At 3 p.m. the air has 9 grams of water vapor per cubic meter of air. We divide 9 by 30 and multiply by 100 to get a relative humidity of 30%. In other words the air actually has 30% of the water vapor it can hold at its current temperature. Cool the air to 20 degrees… now we divide 9, the vapor actually in the air, by 17, the vapor it can hold at the new temperature and multiply by 100 to get a relative humidity of 53% (rounded off). Finally, when the air cools to 10 degrees, we divide 9 by 9 and multiply by 100 to get a relative humidity of 100% – the air now has as much vapor as it can hold at its new temperature.
Why humidity can be less than 100% When Raining..
Humidity is a measure of the amount of water vapor in the air and not the total amount of vapor and liquid. For clouds to form and rain to start, the air has to reach 100% relative humidity, but only where the clouds are forming or where the rain is coming from. This normally happens when the air rises and cools. Often, rain will be falling from clouds where the humidity is 100% into air with a lower humidity. Some water from the rain evaporates into the air it’s falling through, increasing the humidity, but usually not enough to bring the humidity up to 100%.
Humidity and air density
Most people who haven’t studied physics or chemistry find it hard to believe that humid air is lighter, or less dense, than dry air. How can the air become lighter if we add water vapor to it?
Scientists have known this for a long time. The first was Isaac Newton, who stated that humid air is less dense than dry air in 1717 in his book, Optics. But, other scientists didn’t generally understand this until later in that century.
To see why humid air is less dense than dry air, we need to turn to one of the laws of nature the Italian physicist Amadeo Avogadro discovered in the early 1800s. In simple terms, he found that a fixed volume of gas, say one cubic meter, at the same temperature and pressure, would always have the same number of molecules no matter what gas is in the container. Most beginning chemistry books explain how this works.
Imagine a cubic foot of perfectly dry air. It contains about 78% nitrogen molecules, which each have an atomic weight of 28. Another 21% of the air is oxygen, with each molecule having an atomic weight of 32. The final one percent is a mixture of other gases, which we won’t worry about. Molecules are free to move in and out of our cubic foot of air. What Avogadro discovered leads us to conclude that if we added water vapor molecules to our cubic foot of air, some of the nitrogen and oxygen molecules would leave.. Remember, the total number of molecules in our cubic foot of air stays the same. The water molecules that replace nitrogen or oxygen have an atomic weight of 18. This is lighter than both nitrogen and oxygen. In other words, replacing nitrogen and oxygen with water vapor decreases the weight of the air in the cubic foot; that is, it’s density decreases.
Wait a minute, you might say, “I know water’s heavier than air.” True, liquid water is heavier or denser than air, but the water that makes the air humid is not liquid. It’s water vapor, which is a gas that is lighter than nitrogen or oxygen.
Compared to the differences made by temperature and air pressure, humidity has a small effect on the air’s density. But, humid air is lighter than dry air at the same temperature and pressure.
The Role of Humidity
Because of the temperature gradient, humidity decreases rapidly with altitude. The extremely low humidity at 12,000m is responsible for the uncomfortably low humidity in commercial aircraft. The ground-level outdoor humidity is constantly changing.. During the day, water vaporizes from forests, fields and lawns at about 1mm/day, about the same rate as from lakes. As moist air rises to cooler air levels, clouds are formed. Also, there is always a humidity gradient between sunny and shadowy spots on the ground. Even a slight wind is effective in transferring moisture to a cooler spot, where condensation can occur. Traces of atmospheric dust or other matter, such as the leaves of some plant species are capable of inducing moisture from saturated air condensation that then drips to the ground and waters the roots.
During the diurnal cycle, the water content of air increases while the sun shines. During the night the temperature drops and dew forms and recycles moisture to the soil. In coastal areas, the humidity can approach 100% at night on a regular basis.
The indoor climate differs in several fundamental ways from the outdoor climate, because air inside of buildings is confined in a comparatively small volume. In fact, it is often insufficient to maintain human moisture below a noticeable level. As a result, the quality of indoor air undergoes tremendous variations in a short time. This is reflected in indoor humidity trends. The moisture content of a closed room increases rapidly because each occupant continuously adds moisture to the air in the form of perspiration and with every breath day and night at a rate of several liters of water per day. This water readily condenses on cold walls and windows since there is no soil or surface to absorb it. Thus, if buildings are not carefully ventilated, the indoor habitat becomes saturated with moisture, causing not only poor air quality problems, but eventually structural damage.
The amount of water vapor in the air at any given time is usually less than that required to saturate the air. Relative humidity is the percent of saturation humidity, generally calculated in relation to saturated vapor density.
The most common units for vapor density are gm/m3. For example, if the actual vapor density is 10 gm/m3 at 20C compared to the saturation vapor density at that temperature of 17.3 gm/m3 , then the relative humidity is
Saturated Vapor Pressure, Density for Water
Saturated Vapor Pressure for Water
Saturated Vapor Density for Water
The boiling point is defined as the temperature at which the saturated vapor pressure of a liquid is equal to the surrounding atmospheric pressure. For water, the vapor pressure reaches the standard sea level atmospheric pressure of 760 mmHg at 100C. Since the vapor pressure increases with temperature, it follows that for pressure greater than 760 mmHg (e.g., in a pressure cooker), the boiling point is above 100C and for pressure less than 760 mmHg (e.g., at altitudes above sea level), the boiling point will be lower than 100C. As long as a vessel of water is boiling at 760 mmHg, it will remain at 100C until the phase change is complete. Rapidly boiling water is not at a higher temperature than slowly boiling water. The stability of the boiling point makes it a convenient calibration temperature for temperature scales.
Wet-bulb Temperature Used To Measure Humidity
An instrument commonly used to measure the amount moisture in the air is the sling psychrometer. This instrument consists of two liquid in glass thermometers. One thermometer measures the air temperature while the other one measures the wet-bulb temperature. After the wick is dipped in distilled water, the sling psychrometer is whirled around using the handle. Water evaporates from the wick on the wet-bulb thermometer and cools the thermometer due to the latent heat of vaporization. The wet-bulb thermometer is cooled to the lowest value possible in a few minutes. This value is known as the wet-bulb temperature. The drier the air the more the thermometer cools and hence, the lower the wet-bulb temperature. Our humidity calculations page has detailed equations for calculating relative humidity using wet-bulb temperature and air temperature.
If the air is gradually cooled while maintaining the moisture content constant, the relative humidity will rise until it reaches 100%. This temperature, at which the moisture content in the air will saturate the air, is called the dew point . If the air is cooled further, some of the moisture will condense. Dew point can never be higher than the temperature. At saturation, i.e. 100% relative humidity the temperature and dew point are the same.
So How Does Dew Point Feel?
On a typical summer day the following apply:
|75+||Extremely uncomfortable, oppressive|
|70 – 74||Very Humid, quite uncomfortable|
|65 – 69||Somewhat uncomfortable for most people|
|60 – 64||OK for most, but everyone perceives the humidity|
|55 – 59||Comfortable|
|50 – 54||Very comfortable|
|Feels like the western US
a bit dry to some
World Record Dew Points
|The dew point has been measured on the shore of Ethiopia, the area is now part of Eritrea, at 94F. The highest known dew point temperature in the world. The relative humidity with a temperature of 115F and a dew point of 94F is 54%