# Posts tagged ‘relative humidity’

## 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.

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.

## 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.

## New Weather Station Technology in Africa (Part 2)

Weather data improve the lives of many people. But, there are still parts of the globe, such as Africa, where weather monitoring doesn’t exist (see part 1). John Selker and his partners intend to remedy the problem through the Trans African Hydro Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO).  Below are some challenges they face.

TAHMO aims to deploy 20,000 weather stations across the continent of Africa in order to fill a hole that exists in global climate data.

## Big Data, Big Governments, and Big Unknowns

Going from an absence of data to the goal of 20,000 weather stations offers hope for positive changes. However, Selker is still cautious. “Unintended consequences are richly expressed in the history of Africa, and we worry about that a lot. It’s an interesting socio-technical problem.”  This is why Selker and others at TAHMO are asking how they can bring this technology to Africa in a way that fits with their cultures, independence, and the autonomy they want to maintain.

TAHMO works with the government in each country stations are deployed in; negotiating agreements and making sure the desires of each recipient country are met. Even with agreements in place, the officials in each country will do what is in the best interest of the people: a gamble in countries where corruption is a factor which must be addressed. Selker illustrates this point by recalling an instance in 1985 when he witnessed a corrupt government official take an African farmer’s land because the value had increased due to a farm-scale water development project.

Most TAHMO weather stations are hosted and maintained by a local school, making it available as an education tool for teachers to use to teach about climate and weather. Data from TAHMO are freely available to the government in the country where the weather station is hosted, researchers who directly request data, and to the school hosting and maintaining the weather station. Commercial organizations will be able to purchase the data, and the profits will be used to maintain and expand the infrastructure of TAHMO.

Selker says it’s all about collaboration.

## Terrorism, Data, and Open Doors

“When I wanted to go out and put in weather stations, my wife said, ‘No, you will not go to Chad.’ … because it is Boko Haram central,” Selker says.

The Boko Haram— a terrorist organization that has pledged allegiance to ISIS— creates an uncommon hurdle. Currently, the Boko Haram is most active in Nigeria, but has made attacks in Chad, Cameroon, and Niger.

Selker also mentioned similar issues with ISIS, “When ISIS came through Mali, the first thing they did is destroy all the weather stations. So they have no weather data right now in Mali.” Acknowledging the need for security, he adds, “we’re  completing the installation of  eight stations [in Mali] in April.”

“We have good contacts [in Nigeria] and they’re working hard to get permission to put up stations right now in that area. We’ve shipped 15 stations which are ready to install. With these areas we can’t go visit, it’s all about collaboration. It’s about partners and people you know. We have a partnership with a tremendous group of Africans who are really the leading edge of this whole thing.”

Most TAHMO weather stations are hosted and maintained by a local school.

## A Hopeful Future

Despite the challenges of getting this large-scale research network off the ground, Selker and his group remain hopeful.  About his weather data he says, “It’s not glamorous stuff, you won’t see it on the cover of magazines, but these are the underpinnings of a successful society.”

Selker optimistically adds, “We are in a time of incredible opportunity.”

Next Week:  Read an interview with Dr. John Selker on his thoughts about TAHMO.

See performance data for the ATMOS 41 weather station.

## New Weather Station Technology in Africa

Weather data, used for flight safety, disaster relief, crop and property insurance, and emergency services, contributes over \$30 billion in direct value to U.S. consumers annually. Since the 1990’s in Africa, however, there’s been a consistent decline in the availability of weather observations. Most weather stations are costly and require highly trained individuals to maintain. As a result, weather stations in African countries have steadily declined over the last seventy years. Oregon State University’s, Dr. John Selker and his partners intend to remedy the problem through his latest endeavor— the Trans African Hydro Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO).

Weather data improve the lives of many people. But, there are still parts of the globe where weather monitoring doesn’t exist.

## Origins of TAHMO

TAHMO is a research-based organization that aims to deploy 20,000 weather stations across the continent of Africa in order to fill a hole that exists in global climate data. TAHMO originated from a conversation between Selker and Dr. Nick van de Giesen from Delft University of Technology while doing research in Ghana. Having completed an elaborate study on canopy interception at a cocoa plantation in 2006, they hit a “data wall.” There was virtually no weather data available in Ghana, a problem shared by most African countries. This opened the door to what would later become TAHMO.

The majority of weather stations are being installed at local schools where teachers are using the data in their classroom lessons.

## Logistics and Equipment

Originally Selker and van de Geisen set out to make a \$100 weather station, which Selker admitted, “turned out to be harder than we thought.” Not only was making a widely-deployable, affordable, research-grade, no-moving-parts weather station difficult, but additional challenges presented themselves.

“The model of how we might measure the weather in Africa, the whole business model, the production model, infrastructure support, the database and delivery system, the agreements with the countries, agreements with potential data-buyers, that all took us a long time to sort out.” Despite these challenges, in 2010 it started to look feasible. “That’s when we really started to figure out what the technology we were going to use was going to look like.”

After giving a lecture at Washington State University, Selker spoke with Dr. Gaylon Campbell about the project, which led to a long development-deployment-development cycle. Eventually, the final product emerged as a low-maintenance, no-moving-parts, cellular-enabled, solar-powered weather station.

An estimated 60 percent of the African population earn their income by farming.

## Agricultural Benefits of Weather Stations

Crop insurance, a service that is widely used in developed countries, relies on weather data. Once historical data exists, insurance rates can be set, and farmers can purchase crop insurance to replace a crop that is lost to drought, weather, wildfire, etc. On a continent with the largest percentage of the total population subsistence farming, this empowers farmers to take larger risks. Without insurance, farmers need to conserve seed, saving enough to eat and plant again if a crop fails. With crop insurance, crop loss is not as devastating, and farmers can produce larger yields without worrying about losing everything. Hypothetically, this would lead to more food available to the global market, stabilizing food prices year over year.

Crop insurance aside, weather data provide growers with information like when to plant, when not to plant, what crops to plant, and when and if to treat for disease. For rainfed crops, this can mean the difference between a successful yield and a failure.

“Currently in most African countries, the production per acre is about one-sixth of that in the United States. That is the biggest opportunity, in my opinion, for sustainable growth without having to open up new tracts of land. The land is already under cultivation, but we can up productivity, probably by a factor of four, by giving information about when to plant,” Selker comments.

Despite the social benefits, Selker makes it clear that the TAHMO effort is based on mutual benefit: “We are here for a reason, we want these data to advance our research on global climate processes.  This is a global win-win partnership.”

Learn how you can help TAHMO by getting active.

See performance data for the ATMOS 41 weather station.

## Estimating Relative Humidity in Soil: How to Stop Doing it Wrong

Estimating the relative humidity in soil?  Most people do it wrong…every time.  Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell shares a lesson on how to correctly estimate soil relative humidity from his new book, Soil Physics with Python, which he recently coauthored with Dr. Marco Bittelli.

Radioactive waste buried in steel containers will corrode if the humidity is too high.

A number of years ago a former student told me of a meeting he had with some engineers establishing a low-level radioactive waste repository in a desert area. The waste was to be buried, and at least some of it was in steel containers which would corrode if the humidity was too high. The engineers assumed the humidity in the soil would be pretty low because it was a desert, but they didn’t know how low. So, what is the relative humidity in soil? That sounds like it would be a hard thing to find out without measuring it, but it isn’t. Let’s apply a little physics to see what we can find.

The energy required to create an infinitesimal volume of water vapor can be found using the first law of thermodynamics. For an adiabatic system

where dE is the energy required, p is the pressure, and dV is the volume change.

The Boyle-Charles law, which gives the pressure-volume relationship for a perfect gas, is

where n is the number of moles of gas, R is the universal gas constant, and T is the kelvin temperature. Rearranging terms and taking the derivative of both sides gives

This equation can be substituted for dV in the first equation, giving

The total energy required to go from a reference vapor pressure, po (the vapor pressure of pure water) to the vapor pressure of the water in the soil, p is

We can divide both sides by the mass of water. The left side then becomes the energy per unit mass of water in the soil, which we call the water potential. On the right side, the number of moles per unit mass is the reciprocal of the molecular mass of water, and the ratio of the vapor to the saturation vapor pressure is the relative humidity hr so the final equation is

We can rearrange this and take the exponential of both sides, giving

In the second version of the equation the molecular mass of water, the gas constant and the temperature (298K) have been substituted.

We can use this equation to find the range of humidities we would expect in soil. When soil is very wet, the water potential is near 0, so the humidity is exp(0) = 1. At the dry end, the soil is dried mainly by plant water uptake. Even desert soils support some vegetation. The soil near the surface will be dried by evaporation, but a few decimeters below the surface the lowest water potentials are those to which plants can dry them. The nominal permanent wilting point (lower limit of plant available water) is -1500 J/kg. Desert vegetation can extract water to lower potentials. If we say their lower limit is -2500 J/kg, then the humidity is

so the relative humidity in the soil is around 98%. Sagebrush can go lower than -2500 J/kg. We measured -7000 J/kg under it at the end of the growing season. Even that, though, is around 95% humidity.

The conclusion is that the humidity in the soil is always near saturation, except in a shallow evaporation layer near the surface. I don’t remember what the engineers were expecting. I think anything above 60 or 70% was going to be a disaster for corroding the steel containers. I don’t know whether they believed the calculations or just went on thinking that desert soil is dry.