Temperature inversion, a reversal of the normal behaviour of temperature in the troposphere (the region of the atmosphere nearest the Earth’s surface), in which a layer of cool air at the surface is overlain by a layer of warmer air. (Under normal conditions air temperature usually decreases with height.)
When temperature inversion occurs, cold air underlies warmer air at higher altitudes. Temperature inversion may occur during the passage of a cold front or result from the invasion of sea air by a cooler onshore breeze. Overnight radiative cooling of surface air often results in a nocturnal temperature inversion that is dissipated after sunrise by the warming of air near the ground. A more long-lived temperature inversion accompanies the dynamics of the large high-pressure systems depicted on weather maps. Descending currents of air near the center of the high-pressure system produce a warming (by adiabatic compression), causing air at middle altitudes to become warmer than the surface air. Rising currents of cool air lose their buoyancy and are thereby inhibited from rising further when they reach the warmer, less dense air in the upper layers of a temperature inversion. During a temperature inversion, air pollution released into the atmosphere’s lowest layer is trapped there and can be removed only by strong horizontal winds. Because high-pressure systems often combine temperature inversion conditions and low wind speeds, their long residency over an industrial area usually results in episodes of severe smog.
Inversion of temperature is a deviation from the normal change of an atmospheric property with altitude. It almost always refers to a “temperature inversion”, i.e., an increase in temperature with height, or to the layer (“inversion layer”) within which such an increase occurs
Inversions play an important role in determining cloud forms, precipitation, and visibility. An inversion acts as a cap on the upward movement of air from the layers below. As a result, convection produced by the heating of air from below is limited to levels below the inversion. Diffusion of dust, smoke, and other air pollutants is likewise limited. In regions where a pronounced low-level inversion is present, convective clouds cannot grow high enough to produce showers and, at the same time, visibility may be greatly reduced below the inversion, even in the absence of clouds, by the accumulation of dust and smoke particles. Because air near the base of an inversion tends to be cool, fog is frequently present there.
Inversions also affect diurnal variations in air temperature. The principal heating of air during the day is produced by its contact with a land surface that has been heated by the Sun’s radiation. Heat from the ground is communicated to the air by conduction and convection. Since an inversion will usually control the upper level to which heat is carried by convection, only a shallow layer of air will be heated if the inversion is low and large, and the rise in temperature will be great
An inversion can lead to pollution such as smog being trapped close to the ground, with possible adverse effects on health. An inversion can also suppress convection by acting as a “cap”. If this cap is broken for any of several reasons, convection of any moisture present can then erupt into violent thunderstorms. Temperature inversion can notoriously result in freezing rain in cold climates.
How and why inversions occur
Under certain conditions, the normal vertical temperature gradient is inverted such that the air is colder near the surface of the Earth. This can occur when, for example, a warmer, less-dense air mass moves over a cooler, denser air mass. This type of inversion occurs in the vicinity of warm fronts, and also in areas of oceanic upwelling such as along the California coast in the United States. With the sufficient humidity in the cooler layer, fog is typically present below the inversion cap. An inversion is also produced whenever radiation from the surface of the earth exceeds the amount of radiation received from the sun, which commonly occurs at night, or during the winter when the angle of the sun is very low in the sky. This effect is virtually confined to land regions as the ocean retains heat far longer. In the polar regions during winter, inversions are nearly always present over land.
A warmer air mass moving over a cooler one can “shut off” any convection which may be present in the cooler air mass. This is known as a capping inversion. However, if this cap is broken, either by extreme convection overcoming the cap, or by the lifting effect of a front or a mountain range, the sudden release of bottled-up convective energy – like the bursting of a balloon – can result in severe thunderstorms. Such capping inversions typically precede the development of tornadoes in the Midwestern United States. In this instance, the “cooler” layer is actually quite warm, but is still denser and usually cooler than the lower part of the inversion layer capping it.
An inversion can develop as a result of air gradually sinking over a wide area and being warmed by adiabatic compression, usually associated with subtropical high-pressure areas. A stable marine layer may then develop over the ocean as a result. As this layer moves over progressively warmer waters, however, turbulence within the marine layer can gradually lift the inversion layer to higher altitudes, and eventually, even pierce it, producing thunderstorms, and under the right circumstances, leading to tropical cyclones. The accumulated smog and dust under the inversion quickly colours the sky reddish.
A helpful Video
- Strong temperature inversion will keep it cold and smoggy in the valleys, unseasonably warm in the mountains (oregonlive.com)
- Treasure Valley suffers through inversion (ktvb.com)
- Smog Blog: World-Class Pollution Brings Tehran to a Halt (blogs.scientificamerican.com)
- The one way that smog is beneficial to scientific observation (io9.com)
- MODIS-VIIRS 11micron Inversion Detection (nasasport.wordpress.com)