Someone recently asked me what was the scale height of water vapour in the Earth’s atmosphere, so I decided to see if I could find out. The scale height of water vapour is particularly important for infrared, sub-millimetre, millimetre and microwave astronomy, as it is the water vapour in the Earth’s atmosphere which prevents large fractions of these parts of the electromagnetic spectrum from reaching the ground. This is why we can, for example, only study the Cosmic Microwave Background from space or from a few particularly dry places on Earth such as Antarctica and the Atacama desert in Chile.
What does the term ‘scale height’ mean?
First of all, let me explain what the term “scale height” means. It is the altitude by which one needs to go up for the quantity of something (water, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide) to go down by a factor of , where is the base of natural logarithms, and . The scale height, usually written as , is dependent upon the temperature of the gas, the mass of the molecules, and the gravity of the planet. We can write that
where is Boltzmann’s constant, is the temperature (in Kelvin), is the mass of the molecule and is the value of the acceleration due to gravity. If we were to plot the atmospheric pressure as a function of altitude we find that it follows an exponential, this is because of the differential equation which produces Equation (1) above (I will go into the mathematics of how Equation (1) is derived in a separate blog).
In the case of air, which is some 80% nitrogen molecules and 20% oxygen molecules, the scale height has been well determined and is (or, to put it another way, it drops by a half every ). So, if one were at an altitude of , half of the atmosphere would be below you. Go up another and it drops by a half again, so at 75% of the atmosphere is below you.
What is the scale height of water vapour in the Earth’s atmosphere?
Determining the scale height of water vapour in the Earth’s atmosphere is, I have discovered, essentially impossible. Or, to put it better, it is a meaningless figure. This is because it varies too much. It depends on temperature, so even in a given place it can vary quite a bit. So, instead, we talk of precipitable water vapour (PWV) at a particular place (both location and altitude). PWV is the equivalent height of a column of water if we were to take all the water vapour in the atmosphere above a particular location and it were to precipitate as rain.
The Mount Abu Infrared Observatory in India, for example, is at an altitude of 1,680 metres, and quotes a PWV of 1-2mm in winter. The PWV would be higher in summer, as water sinks in the atmosphere when it is cold. For Kitt Peak in Arizona, which is at an altitude of 2,090 metres, the PWV varies between about 15mm and 25mm. This is why very little infrared astronomy is done at Kitt Peak. For Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which is at an altitude of just over 4,000 metres, it varies between 0.5mm and 2mm. This is why there are a number of infrared, sub-mm and millimetre wave telescopes there.
At the South Pole, which is at an altitude of 2,835 metres, the PWV is measured to be between 0.25 and 0.4 in the middle of the Austral winter (June/July/August). Why is this so much lower than Mauna Kea, even though it it is at a lower altitude? It is because it is so much colder.
High in the Atacama desert, on the Llano de Chajnantor (the Chajnantor plateau), which is at an altitude of 5,000 metres and where ALMA and other millimetre and microwave telescopes are being located, the PWV is typically about 1mm, and drops to as low as 0.25mm some 25% of the time (see e.g. this website). This is why Antarctica and the Atacama desert (in particular the Chajnantor plateau) have become places to study the Cosmic Microwave Background from the Earth’s surface; we need exceptionally dry air for the microwaves to reach the ground.
To summarise, it is meaningless to talk about a scale height for water vapour in the Earth’s atmosphere, as the vertical distribution of water vapour not only varies from location to location, but varies at a given location. So, instead, we talk about Precipitable Water Vapour (PWV); the lower this number the drier the air is above our location. To be able to do infrared, sub-millimetre, millimetre and microwave astronomy we need the PWV to be as low as possible, the best sites (Antarctica and the Atacama) get as low as 0.25mm and are usually below 1mm. The exceptionally dry air above Antarctica and the Atacama desert enable us to study the Cosmic Microwave Background from the ground, something we usually have to do from space.