Thursday, June 5, 2008

How big are raindrops?

Photo credit: Leon Brooks,

While I was taking out the trash the other night, I commented to my young son that it was misting outside.

He gave me a funny look and said, “It’s raining.”

I said, “No, it’s misting. It’s not coming down hard enough to be rain.” I started to tell him about the different ways that people might describe rain, like drizzle or light showers, but I stopped short.

How do we define rain? What are the actual meteorological classifications of liquid precipitation? I thought that this would be a simple question, but there's been some debate on the subject.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, drizzle consists of fine water droplets with diameters of less than 0.5 mm; rain is usually larger than 0.5 mm. Fog droplets are similar to drizzle, but they don’t hit the ground.

I found an older set of definitions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though the U.S. Geological Survey at The Water Cycle: Precipitation. The 1959 USDA table referenced on this site has definitions for precipitation that include fog, mist, drizzle, light rain, moderate rain, heavy rain, and cloudburst. Part of this table included the median diameters of different precipitation droplets, including 0.96 mm for drizzle and 1.24 mm on up for rain (note that these don't exactly match the NOAA definitions).

I couldn’t wrap my mind around the numbers, so I took the data about droplet sizes and made my own graph. I discovered a couple of interesting things when I sat down with the numbers.

Data taken from a USGS adaptation (The Water Cycle: Precipitation) of Lull, H.W., 1959, Soil Compaction on Forest and Range Lands, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry Service, Misc. Publication No.768

First, none of the droplets are very big. Even the largest water droplet -- occurring during a cloudburst -- is extremely small, typically measuring less than 2/10 of an inch in diameter. (Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had raindrops fall in my eye and it’s hard for me to believe that they are usually so tiny.)

Second, comparing droplet sizes reveals enormous differences between the categories. Cloudburst droplets (at 2.85 mm in diameter) are over 200 times larger than fog droplets (0.01 mm in diameter).

How do scientists know these things? Here’s one way: In 1971, researcher Motoi Kumai went out into the fog armed with gelatin-coated glass slides and studied the results under an optical microscope. He measured the radii of about 20,000 fog droplets for his paper, published in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences in 1973. (You can read Arctic Fog Droplet Size Distribution and Its Effect on Light Attenuation in the online journals at the American Meteorological Society. Interesting side note: Kumai found that long-lasting fogs have larger water droplets than short duration fogs.

So, how big are raindrops, anyway? See for yourself! The next time you see a storm brewing, take a piece of colored construction paper outside and lay it securely on the ground. Let the first few raindrops fall and then grab your paper and quickly run inside before you both get drenched. The water droplets should have made marks on your paper; you can take your own measurements. Do you think that your results will be the same or different than those found by the meteorologists? Why?


Mona Albano said...

Thanks for the definitions! I didn't realize that mist is heavier than fog. I presume you mean that fog doesn't hit the ground but drizzle does. I always pictured drizzle as a thicker mist. But when you're just reading, you make up definitions from context.

I know I've seen raindrops bigger than 2/10 of an inch but they do fly by pretty fast.

Incidentally, my two almost-identical sibling grey cats are named Fog and Cloud.

jublke said...

Hi mona! Thanks for your comments.

Yes, I meant to say that fog droplets don't hit the ground, but drizzle droplets do. I wonder if the fog droplets are just too light and get carried off by the wind?

I agree with you about the definitions. We all use these terms so it doesn't seem like it should be so hard to find them explained.

Give Fog and Cloud a hug for me!