Atmospheric Stability: Encouraging or Deterring Storms

Red balloon floating between buildings
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Stability (or atmospheric stability) refers to air's tendency to either rise and create storms (instability), or to resist vertical movement (stability).

The simplest way to understand how stability works is to imagine a parcel of air having a thin, flexible cover that allows it to expand but prevents the air inside from mixing with the surrounding air, as is true of a party balloon. Next, imagine that we take the balloon and force it up into the atmosphere. Since air pressure decreases with altitude, the balloon will relax and expand, and its temperature will therefore decrease. If the parcel were cooler than the surrounding air, it would be heavier (since cool air is denser than warm air); and if allowed to do so, it would sink back down to the ground. Air of this type is said to be stable.

On the other hand, if we lifted our imaginary balloon and the air within it was warmer, and hence, less dense than its surrounding air, it would continue to rise until it reached a point where its temperature and that of its surroundings were equal. This type of air is classified as unstable.

Lapse Rates: A Measure of Stability

But meteorologists don't have to watch a balloon's behavior every time they want to know atmospheric stability. They can arrive at the same answer simply by measuring the actual air temperature at various heights; this measure is called the environmental lapse rate (the term "lapse" having to do with temperature's decline).

If the environmental lapse rate is steep then one knows the atmosphere is unstable. But if the lapse rate is small, meaning there's relatively little change in temperature, it's a good indication of a stable atmosphere. The most stable conditions occur during a temperature inversion when temperature increases (rather than decreases) with height.

The easiest way to determine atmospheric stability at a glance is by using an atmospheric sounding.

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Oblack, Rachelle. "Atmospheric Stability: Encouraging or Deterring Storms." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Oblack, Rachelle. (2023, April 5). Atmospheric Stability: Encouraging or Deterring Storms. Retrieved from Oblack, Rachelle. "Atmospheric Stability: Encouraging or Deterring Storms." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).