We make assumptions, and believe we are right about the assumptions; then we defend our assumptions and try to make someone else wrong.
Don Miguel Ruiz, Author
Sometimes people believe things that are nonsense because they have painted themselves into a corner with their assumptions and believing in nonsense is the only option that remains to save them from appearing to be complete fools. The most stupefying myth in all of meteorology is the myth that steam can persist in our atmosphere. It is universally believed by all meteorologists yet, strangely, not one of them would claim knowledge of a test or experiment to demonstrate its validity. Stranger still, what little empirical evidence we do have decidedly indicates that the notion fails (also see this for discussion). This notion has evolved into a taboo within the disciplines that study the atmosphere, the primary champions and enforcers of this taboo being meteorologists, most of whom for which the issue is a mute point in that they exclusively work with synoptic charts (cold fronts, warm fronts and such, usually displayed on computer screens) and, therefore, the notion is never applied in the context of their daily duties. Only for a very small subset of meteorologists—those that deal with the severe weather and, even then, only those that deal with the theoretical aspects thereof—does this notion have any real significance. But for these few the effect is intellectually devastating, rendering them feckless, incapable of making any kind of real progress in the discipline. One consequence of this being that the theoretical aspects of the study of severe weather have come to epitomize academic vapidity. And there really isn’t much any of them can do about it in that belief in the concept is a prerequisite for being taken seriously by any of the various stakeholders in the discipline. But at least they don’t look like complete fools.
Meteorologists don’t refer to steam in the atmosphere they refer to convection. It is only when forced to explain the assumptions underlying convection (which involves application of Avogadro’s law) that they reluctantly reveal that they are assuming mono-molecular H2O (steam) in their models of convection. But if you attempt to get them to explain how they, supposedly, know that water can stay mono-molecular at temperatures below the boiling point of water, well, that’s when the game playing begins. Emotions run deep on this issue. So deep, in fact, that when one states facts that demonstrate the impossibility of steam playing a role (or even existing) in our atmosphere one can generally expect to be accused of being a fool and a liar. In this respect it is not unlike the concept of CO2 Forcing in climatology. It’s lack of empirical support is completely disregarded due to overwhelming political support. There is not, however, the ideological aspect to the notion that we find with the notion that CO2 causes global warming. There are not, for example, liberals telling us it is true and conservatives telling us it is false. And there is no greater agenda tied to it. Nobody believes that there are any catastrophic eventualities if anybody does or does not believe it. This too is strange in that unlike the highly speculative science associated with global warming, nobody disputes the more limited but very real catastrophic eventualities of severe weather.
Steam-based Convection Myth Fails to Predict
The story underlying the steam-based convection myth becomes stranger still when one considers how incredibly resilient this notion has been despite its failure to predict or anticipate new discoveries. Basically there have been three waves of new evidence (most of which being due to advances in aviation) that the steam-based convection model failed to predict.
The earliest of these three discoveries was the discovery of extreme turbulence at the top of thunderstorms. This was surprising because up until then it had been assumed that as water molecules within a parcel of air combined with other water molecules in the colder air at the top of the troposphere the air parcel would become more dense. And, consequently, it’s buoyancy–the assumed source of its power–would be neutralized. Additionally, when observed from the ground the tops of thunderstorms appeared to be benign, fluffy, and harmless. However, as explained in this article in Plane and Pilot Magazine, in reality there is nothing harmless about the activity at the top of thunderstorms:
Deep, moist convection, better known as thunderstorms, are the nemesis of all aircraft, big or small. Avoidance is mandatory. Many pilots, however, continue to find themselves tangled up in these giants, and very few live to tell about it.
From one that did live to tell about it, the following, entitled Science Inside and Out, involves the first hand testimony of a then new pilot, Joe Olsen, encountering thunderstorms on a solo flight in a small plane over Texas:
Entering the cloud felt like hitting a wall. Suddenly everything was white, it was raining from every direction and the wind was howling. There were massive vertical wind shears that rendered the instruments useless. The altitude, air speed, rate of climb and artificial horizon gauges were all bouncing peg to peg. “Flying by the seat of your pants” quickly becomes the over-riding instinct. You are now in vertigo and your butt thinks it knows where the Earth is. You are fooled by the changing gravity of the rapid up and down wind shear. You are surrounded by glowing white light and cannot see further than ten feet in any direction. The wings are shaking at beyond maximum design loading and the LAST thing you want is your BUTT flying the plane. The propeller is used to 110 mph wind from the nose, but is disturbed by the 200 mph up and down winds.
And from the online journal Physics Dot Org comes and excerpt from an article entitled Flying Into a Thunderstorm:
Some thunderstorms are so violent they pump air more than 60,000 feet above Earth’s surface, punching through a layer of atmosphere called the tropopause all the way into the stratosphere.
In the least one might expect that the failure of the steam-based convection model to predict the magnitude of this activity at the top of thunderclouds might have served to inspire them to open their minds to the possibility that processes other than just convection might be involved. But that appears to not be the case.
The second of the three waves of new evidence involved the discovery of jet streams during and after WWII.
According to Wikipedia:
Jet streams are fast flowing, narrow air currents found in the atmospheres of some planets, including Earth. The main jet streams are located near the altitude of the tropopause, the transition between the troposphere and the stratosphere (where temperature increases with altitude). The major jet streams on Earth are westerly winds (flowing west to east). Their paths typically have a meandering shape; jet streams may start, stop, split into two or more parts, combine into one stream, or flow in various directions including the opposite direction of most of the jet.
As with the activity observed at the top of thunderstorms, there is nothing about the discovery of the jet stream that was predicted or anticipated by the steam-based convection model of meteorology’s storm theory. Again, one might think that this failure to predict might bring meteorologists to look at the steam-based convection model of storm theory with more scrutiny. Or, even, that it might inspire them to look for alternative models. But, once again, this seems to not have happened.
Lastly, and once again completely unpredicted by the steam-powered convection notions, was the discovery of clear air turbulence. Clear-air turbulence, as the name suggests, is turbulence that happens without any visual cues (clouds) whatsoever. According to the website How Stuff Works:
Even though pilots are taught to avoid turbulent air by looking for cumulus clouds, turbulence can strike even in the absence of clouds. This type of turbulence—especially dangerous because of its invisibility—is known as clear-air turbulence. It accounts for most turbulence-related injuries, mainly because pilots have no time to warn passengers and flight attendants to get strapped into their seats. Nearly 7 out of 10 turbulence incidents are the result of encounters with the clear-air variety.
According to Wikipedia:
The atmospheric region most susceptible to CAT is the high troposphere at altitudes of around 7,000–12,000 metres (23,000–39,000 ft) as it meets the tropopause. Here CAT is most frequently encountered in the regions of jet streams. At lower altitudes it may also occur near mountain ranges. Thin cirrus cloud can also indicate high probability of CAT.
Lines of cirrus perpendicular to the jet stream indicate possible CAT, especially if the ends of the cirrus are dispersed in which case the direction of dispersal can indicate if the CAT is stronger at the left or at the right of the jet stream.
64% of the non-light turbulences (not only CAT) are observed less than 150 nautical miles (280 km) away from the core of a jet stream.
CAT is never produced in the stratosphere.
Forced to Choose Between Wrong and Ridiculously Wrong
As with the other shortcomings of the steam-based convection model that I delineated at the beginning of this post, this failure to predict the discovery of these three meteorological phenomena is not something for which meteorologists are remotely concerned or even generally aware. All in all, they demonstrate an amazing ability to pretend not to notice the shortcomings of their theory and even to conceal it by, as I indicated, hiding the notion of steam within the less plainly absurd notion of convection. And then, of course, there is the evasiveness and name calling directed at anybody that doesn’t play along with their desire to pretend not to notice. And yet, as mentioned previously, there appears to not be any kind of larger political agenda. This leaves one scratching their head wondering what is at the root of these behaviors.
I think I can answer this question. And my answer does not in any way involve accusations that meteorologists are in collusion, lacking in intelligence, or cynical. Rather, I suggest, they are mistaken on one point of fact that has resulted in them making an omission. And in that omission they have closed themselves off to to an element in their explanations without which it is impossible to make sense of what is actually observed in the atmosphere, leaving them to choose between explanatory approaches that are wrong and ridiculously wrong. And it all has to do with how we envision water getting up high into the sky.
Here’s the thing. The pervasiveness of H2O in all parts of the troposphere (from the surface all the way up to the stratosphere) is undeniable. Likewise, the pervasiveness of H2O in all weather events is equally undeniable. Moreover, H2O is constantly falling out of the sky. Thus, the number one job of a theoretical meteorologists is to explain how water, H2O, gets up into the sky. The explanatory elements that meteorologists must use to achieve this explanation are the following: dry air (N2 and O2, and other trace inert gasses) and the three phases of water, ice, liquid water, and gaseous water (steam). Obviously ice is not viable. Ice only falls out of the sky. Liquid water water is more viable in that it is commonly observed in the form of fog or clouds, visible droplets. And, starting from evaporation, these can stay suspended in the air due to electrostatic forces, which are implications of N2 and O2. However, electrostatic forces in and of themselves can only explain, at best, how liquid droplets of water (some so small they are invisible). what we commonly refer to as humidity, can get up to about 1,000 meters, 1,500 meters at most. It is plainly observable what does the remainder of the work to get moisture up above 7,000 meters–storms. And storms do this in a relatively rapid and dramatic manner, producing the sometimes violent updrafts that are such a hazard to aircraft. So the issue can be reduced to the question as to what powers storms? It would seem the answer must be obvious, buoyancy induced by steam, the gaseous phase of water, powers storms because there is nothing else that can possibly explain why moist air would begin to rise up through the drier surrounding air. Moreover, there is nothing else that can explain why storms themselves tend to be so wet, selectively occurring in moist air. Therefore, only steam can possibly explain how storms cause water–moist air–to rapidly get up above 7,000 meters. Right?
Actually, no. That is wrong. There is something else that can/will explain the uplift of moist air observed in storms. And it doesn’t involve steam whatsoever. In fact, the assertion that steam cannot exist in our atmosphere is, in fact, true. So the notion that steam provides the buoyancy of storms and/or the notion that buoyancy is the only force that can describe the uplift in storms and/or the notion that the only way water can provide uplift is through buoyancy are all false statements. There is another force involved. There is another way in which water can provide uplift in storms. And the three atmospheric phenomena that I mentions above, 1) the turbulence at the top of thunderstorms, 2) the jet stream, and 3) clear-air turbulence, are big clues as to this other force. In a follow-up post to this post I will demonstrate how one can start from the observation of CAT and track back through the jet stream, through to the tops of thunderclouds all the way down to the moist air (humidity) at lower altitudes and perfectly explain how this moist air begins to rapidly rise up into the upper troposphere (over 7.000 meters). And at no time will this explanation require the existence of steam or buoyancy. (Note: It might be a while until I will have time for this follow-up post. In the meantime there are two other posts on this blog that will give you a sense of where I am going with this: Tornado Solution Too Easy . . . and What You Never Suspected . . ., also there is my book, Solving Tornadoes, see link on sidebar.)
What is the mistake meteorologists have been making? What is the conceptual error. What is the omission? As explained above, meteorologists assumed three phases of H2O. They assumed ice, liquid water, and gaseous water, steam. They did not know about, and frankly, could not have known about a fourth phase of water, plasma. Nor could they have known about the structural capabilities that this plasma phase of water brings to our understanding of atmospheric processes. And, consequently, they could not have known how these structural capabilities are the key to explaining the uplift of moist air witnessed in storms. And, therefore, they could not have known that there is a way to explain the uplift witnessed in storms that doesn’t require them to surrender their dignity.