Inversion (meteorology)

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In meteorology, an inversion 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.[1]

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.

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Normal atmospheric conditions

Usually, within the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) the air near the surface of the Earth is warmer than the air above it, largely because the atmosphere is heated from below as solar radiation warms the Earth's surface, which in turn then warms the layer of the atmosphere directly above it e.g. by thermals (convective heat transfer).

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. With 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.

Subsidence inversion

An inversion can develop aloft 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 taints the sky reddish, easily seen on sunny days.

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