Temperature inversion can act like a lid

Columbus (WCMH) – Today, many of us smelled a foul smell if you were around the city.   There was something that happened in the atmosphere overnight that could have trapped this smell.   Enter the newest “IT” phrase of 2016 for Columbus…. “Temperature Inversion”


What the heck is a temperature inversion, and how common is it?

So for the majority of us on a daily basis we only interact with the absolute lowest part of the Earth’s lower atmosphere right near the ground.   On occasion you might get in a plane and fly somewhere, but still you are only about 6 miles up in the sky and only a small portion of the way through the lower atmosphere.

Typically in the lowest level of the atmosphere temperatures decrease with height.   This means, the higher you go, the colder it gets.   But it does happen that sometimes layers of this atmosphere may be warmer than the air below.

It is not terribly uncommon, especially in late Autumn and Winter.

When the temperature increases (gets warmer) with height, this is an inversion, or “temperature inversion” as you may have heard people referencing today.


(Red line on chart is temperature.   On this chart when you see the red line bow to the right, like it does near the bottom that is the inversion)


So how does something like this occur?

When you have long nights like we have right around the start of Winter (tomorrow), the Earth’s surface has a long period to cool off.   When you have clear skies, and calm winds you have ideal conditions for the Earth and the air above it to not cool off evenly.   This can allow an inversion to form overnight like we had this morning.


When an inversion forms, what causes the pollution to increase near the ground?

The inversion acts as a lid, that traps the air that is below it, and it will continue to mix below the inversion.   In the summer, you can have an inversion that does not allow clouds to build up in the sky, it acts as a “cap”.   This cap can be broken by strong updrafts and strong building storms.   When this happens you can have explosive t-storms.

In the cold weather months, like today, that inversion still acts like a lid, but it traps the good and bad air below it.   As the pollutants rise, they get trapped and mix below the inversion.



Why were things so smelly this morning?

This inversion was so close to the ground this morning that it trapped the air close to where our noses live.   Once we had a bit of wind pick up, the air mixed enough for the smell to start to dissipate.  What caused the smell in the first place is under investigation, and does not fall under the “weather” department 😉

(in the chart above, the “smelly stuff” is the purple color… as it rises in the air, it is basically hitting the inversion lid and getting trapped below it)



If you ever have questions about weather, climate, smog, pollution, or anything else weather related, email me: dmazza@wcmh.com

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