Rain is a type of precipitation, a product of the condensation of atmospheric water vapor that is deposited on the Earth’s surface. It forms when separate drops of water fall to the Earth from clouds. Not all rain reaches the surface; some evaporates while falling through dry air. When none of it reaches the ground, it is called virga, a phenomenon often seen in hot, dry desert regions.
How rain is formed
Rain plays a role in the hydrologic cycle in which moisture from the oceans evaporates, condenses into drops, precipitates (falls) from the sky, and eventually returns to the ocean via rivers and streams to repeat the cycle again. The water vapor from plant respiration also contributes to the moisture in the atmosphere.
A major scientific explanation of how rain forms and falls is called the Bergeron process. More recent research points to the influence of Cloud condensation nuclei released as the result of biological processes.
Differing conditions for rainfall
Based on the reason for precipitation, rain is classified into:
- Orographic rain
- Convective rain
- Frontal or cyclonic rain
The fine particulate matter produced by car exhaust and other human sources of pollution form cloud condensation nuclei, leads to the production of clouds and increases the likelihood of rain. As commuters and commercial traffic cause pollution to build up over the course of the week, the likelihood of rain increases: it peaks by Saturday, after five days of weekday pollution has been built up. In heavily populated areas that are near the coast, such as the United States’ Eastern Seaboard, the effect can be dramatic: there is a 22% higher chance of rain on Saturdays than on Mondays
Classifying the amount of rain
When classified according to amount of precipitation, rain can be divided into:
- Very light rain — when the precipitation rate is < 0.25 mm/hour
- Light rain — when the precipitation rate is between 0.25 mm/hour – 1.0 mm/hour
- Moderate rain — when the precipitation rate is between 1.0 mm/hour – 4.0 mm/hour
- Heavy rain — when the precipitation rate is between 4.0 mm/hour – 16.0 mm/hour
- Very heavy rain — when the precipitation rate is between 16.0 mm/hour – 50 mm/hour
- Extreme rain — when the precipitation rate is > 50.0 mm/hour
Raindrops impact at their terminal velocity, which is greater for larger drops. At sea level and without wind, 0.5 mm drizzle impacts at about 2 m/s, while large 5 mm drops impact at around 9 m/s. The sound of raindrops hitting water is caused by bubbles of air oscillating underwater. See droplet’s sound.
Generally, rain has a pH slightly under 6. This is because atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolves in the droplet to form minute quantities of carbonic acid, which then partially dissociates, lowering the pH. In some desert areas, airborne dust contains enough calcium carbonate to counter the natural acidity of precipitation, and rainfall can be neutral or even alkaline. Rain below pH 5.6 is considered acid rain.
Rainfall is typically measured using a rain gauge. It is expressed as the depth of water that collects on a flat surface, and is routinely measured with an accuracy up to 0.1 mm or 0.01 in. Rain gauges are usually placed at a uniform height above the ground, which may vary depending on the country. There are two types of gauges. Storage rain gauges are used to make daily or monthly measurements. Recording rain gauges measure the intensity of rainfall using a tipping bucket which will only tip when a certain volume of water is in it. An electrical switch can be used to record the tips.
Effect on agriculture
Precipitation, especially rain, has a dramatic effect on agriculture. All plants need at least some water to survive, therefore rain (being the most effective means of watering) is important to agriculture. While a regular rain pattern is usually vital to healthy plants, too much or too little rainfall can be harmful, even devastating to crops. Drought can kill crops in massive numbers, while overly wet weather can cause disease and harmful fungus. Plants need varying amounts of rainfall to survive. For example, cacti need small amounts of water while tropical plants may need up to hundreds of inches of rain to survive.
Agriculture of all nations at least to some extent is dependent on rain. Indian agriculture, for example, (which accounts for 25 percent of the GDP and employs 70 percent of the nation’s population) is heavily dependent on the rains, especially crops like cotton, rice, oilseeds and coarse grains. A delay of a few days in the arrival of the monsoon can, and does, badly affect the economy, as evidenced in the numerous droughts in India in the 90s.
Cultural attitudes towards rain differ across the world. In the largely temperate Europe, rain metaphorically has a sad and negative connotation — reflected in children’s rhymes like Rain Rain Go Away — in contrast to the bright and happy sun. Though the traditional notion of rain in the Western World is negative, rain can also bring joy, as some consider it to be soothing or enjoy the aesthetic appeal of it. In dry places, such as parts of Africa, Australia, India, and the Middle East, rain is greeted with euphoria. (In Botswana, the Setswana word for rain, “pula,” is used as the name of the national currency, in recognition of the economic importance of rain in this desert country.)
Several cultures have developed means of dealing with rain and have developed numerous protection devices such as umbrellas and raincoats, and diversion devices such as gutters and storm drains that lead rains to sewers. Many people also prefer to stay inside on rainy days, especially in tropical climates where rain is usually accompanied by thunderstorms or is extremely heavy (as in a monsoon). Rain may be harvested, though rainwater is rarely pure (as acid rain occurs naturally), or used as greywater. Excessive rain, particularly after a dry period that has hardened the soil so that it cannot absorb water, can cause floods.
Many people find the scent during and immediately after rain especially pleasant or distinctive. The source of this scent is petrichor, an oil produced by plants, then absorbed by rocks and soil, and later released into the air during rainfall. Light or heavy rain is sometimes seen as romantic.