In April 2014, NDSU extension published an excellent factsheet explaining what thermal inversions are, how to detect them and how they affect pesticide spray drift. That factsheet inspired this article.
The Earth is surrounded by a layer of air called the atmosphere. Think of it as a sheet of liquid percolating and flowing over the Earth’s surface. Seems a bit precarious, doesn’t it?
We define “layers” of atmosphere based on their distance from the Earth’s surface (see image below). We’ll focus on the lowest part of the Earth’s atmosphere: the Surface Boundary Layer. As it drags along the Earth’s surface it experiences rapid changes in wind speed, temperature and humidity (on a time scale of an hour or less).
In relatively calm, clear and dry conditions (e.g. a nice afternoon), air cools with elevation at a rate of about 1°C per 100m. This change is called the Adiabatic Lapse Rate and it’s caused by pressure changing with elevation. If your ears have popped when driving down a steep hill, you’ve experienced pressure change with elevation; there is more atmosphere overhead and the weight pushes down.
With higher elevation, there is less atmosphere overhead. Less weight means less pressure and this gives air room to expand. Expansion takes work and work costs energy, which creates a cooling effect. See how simple thermodynamics are?
In the graph below, the red line shows the Adiabatic Lapse Rate of air cooling with elevation. The blue line indicates wind stirring and homogenizing the atmosphere, reducing the degree of temperature change with elevation (more on that later).
Day and night
When we add the effect of daytime solar heating and nighttime cooling, the rate of temperature change is affected. Let’s consider how this works on a clear, relatively calm day:
The morning sun emits short wave radiation, which is absorbed by the Earth’s surface. The surface conducts some of this energy deeper into the ground and also heats the air near the surface. This creates a temperature gradient wherein the surface is warmest and the air gets relatively cooler with elevation (remember the red line in the graph above).
As the air near the surface warms, that energy causes air molecules to vibrate and push away from one another. Parcels of air become less dense and rise just like the gloop in a lava lamp. The cooler air around it falls to fill in the space left behind, and air begins to circulate in a Convection Cell. The rising parcel of air will eventually cool and shrink as it rises through the relatively cooler air above it.
These convection cells create Thermal Turbulence, which is a very effective way for airborne particles, such as pesticide vapour, to be rapidly diluted. This is also how the atmosphere disperses pollution. More on the process of dispersion, later.
Mid to late afternoon
As the sun passes over and the wind starts to rise, the convection cells get disrupted by the wind and experience mechanical turbulence (remember the blue line in the graph above). So, mechanical turbulence also mixes warmer air near the ground with cooler air above it, but suppresses thermal turbulence.
Mid-afternoon to night
As the energy from the sun lessens, the soil begins to cool and so does the air next to it. Once the air cools enough to be colder than the air above it, we have the beginning of a Radiation Inversion, which is a specific kind of Thermal Inversion (see the green line in the graph below). It is called that because we now have the reverse of the typical day-time temperature profile. The height of the inversion (the ceiling) grows with time, and can reach a maximum of about 100m by sunrise. Within the inversion layer (before the green line bends back at 100m), turbulence is suppressed. We have a stable air mass. More on that below.
How inversions affect dispersion
The rising portion of a convection cell carries whatever particles are in the air with it. Suspended particles become much less concentrated at ground level thanks to the thermal turbulence.
Now let’s imagine we are in a thermal inversion. The cooler, particle laden air near the ground cannot rise and the cleaner air above, which is now relatively warmer, cannot sink. Thermal turbulence is suppressed, and so is any vertical dispersion.
When spraying, the smallest spray droplets fall slowest, staying airborne for long periods of time. If spraying occurs during an inversion, those particles accumulate beneath the inversion layer. Remember we said our atmosphere behaves like a liquid? The colder, denser (pesticide-laden) air drains downhill into low-lying areas. It can also move laterally over great distances, in unpredictable directions, when light winds begin.
If the morning were overcast instead of clear, the clouds would intercept much of the sun’s short-wave radiation, absorbing or reflecting it back into space. The Earth’s surface would still warm, but more slowly, suppressing thermal turbulence. As an aside, if clouds form in the evening, they reflect long-wave radiation from the Earth’s surface back down. This Greenhouse Effect is why overcast nights are warmer than clear ones.
Therefore, extended periods of mostly clear skies in the evening or night means a high probability of strong temperature inversions. Conversely, cloud cover usually means a near-neutral atmosphere, so no strong inversion.
Inversions are only mildly affected by light wind (e.g. 6 to 8 km/h), but as the wind increases and mechanical turbulence mixes the air, the strength of the inversion will be reduced and the atmosphere will approach a neutral condition (see the blue line). In this condition, airborne particles are not dispersed by thermal turbulence, but some mixing will occur. So, there may not be a thermal inversion, but spraying would still be inadvisable if the wind got too high.
Inversions form more rapidly when there is less water vapour in the air to absorb radiation. Once humid air has cooled to the dew point, water condensation gives off energy and warms the air a little. This slows the formation of the inversion. Be aware that inversion conditions can exist long before fog, dew or frost forms, so they are not a good indicator for the beginning of an inversion – you’re already in one!
Soil conditions and topography
This is a complex issue, but soil conditions that make inversions more intense include low soil moisture, freshly tilled soils, coarse soils, heavy residue and closed crop canopies. Topography matters, too. We’re discussing radiation inversions in arable regions, and the kind that form on mountains or deep valleys. Nevertheless, inversions in shaded areas (e.g., behind windbreaks) start sooner, and last longer. See the NDSU factsheet for more detail.
Inversions, once formed, persist until the sun rises and warms the Earth’s surface, or until winds increase and mix the stationary layers of air together, re-establishing a more neutral temperature profile.
Sunset is not a good indicator of the beginning of an inversion – it can start a few hours before. Therefore, evening spraying may be just as risky as night spraying. Very early mornings (e.g. around sunrise) are not much better. Remember, at sunrise, the inversion will be at its maximum height.
The rising sun will warm the earth and create turbulent conditions, starting near its surface (e.g. a few metres). Most inversions will have dissipated two hours after sunrise, which may be the best choice for spraying.
Detecting an inversion
The only sure way to know if you are in an inversion is to take two air temperature readings: one near the ground and one about three metres higher. If the surface air temperature is cooler, you are in an inversion. The magnitude of the difference indicates how strong the inversion is.
Accurate measurements are difficult to manage with conventional thermometers, but SpotOn now makes a hand-held detection unit. If you have one, be sure to let it acclimate before you use it. Leaving it in a hot, or cold, truck or sprayer cab prior to use means it may give a false reading.
Inversion forecasting is getting better, but it’s still location-specific and not entirely reliable. Sprayer operators should learn to watch for the following environmental cues:
- Large temperature swings between daytime and the previous night.
- Calm (e.g. less than 3 km/h wind) and clear conditions when the sun is low.
- Intense high pressure systems (usually associated with clear skies) and low humidity where you intend to spray.
- Dew or frost indicating cooler air near the ground (fog may be too late).
- Smoke or dust hanging in the air or moving laterally.
- Odours travelling large distances and seeming more intense.
- Daytime cumulus clouds collapse toward the evening.
- Overnight cloud cover is 25% or less.
For more information on how weather affects drift, download this pamphlet from the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology.