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Chalk Talk: Why is Humidity Relative?

Dr. Colin Campbell, a senior research scientist at METER Group, as well as adjunct faculty at Washington State University teaches about relative humidity.

Comparing RH at different research sites can be a challenge

Watch the video to find out why we use the term relative humidity and why comparing RH at different research sites can be a challenge.

 

Video transcript

Why is humidity relative?

Hi, I’m Dr. Colin Campbell. I’m a senior research scientist here at METER Group, as well as adjunct faculty up at Washington State University. And I teach a class in environmental biophysics. And today, we’re going to be talking about relative humidity. Have you ever looked at a weather report and wondered, what do they mean by the term relative? Why aren’t we talking about absolute things? And so today I’m going to talk about what is relative humidity? Well, relative humidity we’re going to define here as just hr. And hr is equal to the partial pressure of water vapor in air divided by the saturation vapor pressure or the maximum possible partial pressure of water in air as a function of temperature. So this is relative because anytime we have a partial pressure of water vapor, we’re always dividing it by the maximum possible water vapor that could be in the air at any point.

Comparing RH at different sites is a challenge

So, why would relative humidity be such a challenge for us as scientists to use in comparing different sites? I wanted to talk about that so we can focus in here on this saturation vapor pressure. Over here we have Tetens equation. This says that the saturation vapor pressure, which is a function of air temperature is equal to 0.611 kPa times the exponential of a constant “b” times the air temperature divided by another constant “c” plus the air temperature. So at any point, depending on the air temperature, we can calculate the saturation vapor pressure, and then we can put it back into this equation and get our relative humidity. There are two situations we might think about for calculating our saturation vapor pressure. The most typical is this one: where that constant “b” is 17.502 degrees C. And the constant “c” is 240.97 degrees C (the units on this are degrees C, so these will cancel). If we’re over ice, those constants will be different: “b” would be 21.87 degrees C and “c” would be 265.5 degrees C. 

So as I mentioned, relative humidity is a challenging variable to use in research because while vapor pressure (ea) (the vapor pressure of the air) is somewhat conservative across a day, the saturation vapor pressure (with respect to air temperature), this changes slowly with temperature across the day. So if we graphed temperature on one axis and the relative humidity on the other axis, we might during a typical day have a temperature range that looks somewhat like this. And even if the actual vapor pressure “ea” wasn’t changing, we’d see a relative humidity trend that looked like this: only changing because of air temperature. And because of that, if we wondered how do I compare the water in the air at one research site, for example, with the water in the air at another research site? We might be inclined to average them. But because of this trend, the average of the relative humidity at any site tends to be around 0.60 to 0.65 and therefore will be totally irrelevant in the literature. 

So we need to speak in absolutes, and in my next lecture, I’m going to go into what we can do to calculate that absolute relative humidity. If you want to know more about making measurements in the atmosphere, go to metergroup.com, look at our atmospheric instrumentation, and you can learn more from there.

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