Droplet size distributions in turbulent clouds: experimental evaluation of theoretical distributions

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Department of Physics


Precipitation efficiency and optical properties of clouds, both central to determining Earth's weather and climate, depend on the size distribution of cloud particles. In this work theoretical expressions for cloud droplet size distribution shape are evaluated using measurements from controlled experiments in a convective‐cloud chamber. The experiments are a unique opportunity to constrain theory because they are in steady‐state and because the initial and boundary conditions are well characterized compared to typical atmospheric measurements. Three theoretical distributions obtained from a Langevin drift‐diffusion approach to cloud formation via stochastic condensation are tested: (a) stochastic condensation with a constant removal time‐scale; (b) stochastic condensation with a size‐dependent removal time‐scale; (c) droplet growth in a fixed supersaturation condition and with size‐dependent removal. In addition, a similar Weibull distribution that can be obtained from the drift‐diffusion approach, as well as from mechanism‐independent probabilistic arguments (e.g., maximum entropy), is tested as a fourth hypothesis. Statistical techniques such as the χ2 test, sum of squared errors of prediction, and residual analysis are employed to judge relative success or failure of the theoretical distributions to describe the experimental data. An extensive set of cloud droplet size distributions are measured under different aerosol injection rates. Five different aerosol injection rates are run both for size‐selected aerosol particles, and six aerosol injection rates are run for broad‐distribution, polydisperse aerosol particles. In relative comparison, the most favourable comparison to the measurements is the expression for stochastic condensation with size‐dependent droplet removal rate. However, even this optimal distribution breaks down for broad aerosol size distributions, primarily due to deviations from the measured large‐droplet tail. A possible explanation for the deviation is the Ostwald ripening effect coupled with deactivation/activation in polluted cloud conditions.

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Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society