Aerosol and cloud microphysical characteristics of rifts and gradients in maritime stratocumulus clouds

Tarah M. Sharon, Bruce A. Albrecht, Haflidi H. Jonsson, Patrick Minnis, Mandana M. Khaiyer, Timothy M. van Reken, John Seinfeld, Rick Flagan

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


A cloud rift is characterized as a large-scale, persistent area of broken, low-reflectivity stratocumulus clouds usually surrounded by a solid deck of stratocumulus. A rift observed off the coast of California was investigated using an instrumented aircraft to compare the aerosol, cloud microphysical, and thermodynamic properties in the rift with those of the surrounding solid stratocumulus deck. The microphysical characteristics in the solid stratocumulus deck differ substantially from those of a broken, cellular rift where cloud droplet concentrations are a factor of 2 lower than those in the solid cloud. Furthermore, cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) concentrations were found to be about 3 times greater in the solid-cloud area compared with those in the rift. Although drizzle was observed near cloud top in parts of the solid stratocumulus cloud, the largest drizzle rates were associated with the broken clouds within the rift area and with extremely large effective droplet sizes retrieved from satellite data. Minimal thermodynamic differences between the rift and solid cloud deck were observed. In addition to marked differences in particle concentrations, evidence of a mesoscale circulation near the solid cloud-rift boundary is presented. This mesoscale circulation may provide a mechanism for maintaining a rift, but further study is required to understand the initiation of a rift and the conditions that may cause it to fill. A review of results from previous studies indicates similar microphysical characteristics in rift features sampled serendipitously. These observations indicate that cloud rifts are depleted of aerosols through the cleansing associated with drizzle and are a manifestation of natural processes occurring in marine stratocumulus.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)983-997
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of the Atmospheric Sciences
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2006
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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