Introductory concepts

The atmosphere is a compressible fluid, and the description of such a form of matter is usually unfamiliar to students who are just completing calculus and classical mechanics as part of a standard university physics course. To complicate matters the atmosphere is composed of not just a single ingredient, but several ingredients, including different (mostly nonreactive) gases and particles in suspension (aerosols). Some of the ingredients change phase (primarily water) and there is an accompanying exchange of energy with the environment. The atmosphere also interacts with its lower boundary which acts as a source (and sink) of friction, thermal energy, water vapor, and various chemical species. Electromagnetic radiation enters and leaves the atmosphere and in so doing it warms and cools layers of air, interacting selectively with different constituents in different wavelength bands.

Meteorology is concerned with describing the present state of the atmosphere (temperature, pressure, winds, humidity, precipitation, cloud cover, etc.) and in predicting the evolution of these primary variables over time intervals of a few days. The broader field of atmospheric science is concerned with additional themes such as climate (statistical summaries of weather), air chemistry (its present, future, and history), atmospheric electricity, atmospheric optics (across all wavelengths), aerosols and cloud physics. Both the present state of the bulk atmosphere and its evolution are determined by Newton's laws of mechanics as they apply to such a compressible fluid. Dynamics is concerned primarily with the motion of the atmosphere under the influence of various natural forces. But before one can undertake the study of atmospheric dynamics, one must be able to describe the atmosphere in terms of its primary variables. An essential tool needed in this description is thermodynamics, which helps relate the fundamental quantities of pressure, temperature and density as atmospheric parcels move from place to place. Such parcels contract and expand, their temperatures rise and fall; water changes phase, back and forth from vapor to liquid to ice; chemical constituents react, etc. The key to understanding these changes lies in applications of the laws of thermodynamics which relate these changes to fluxes of energy and other less familiar functions which will be introduced as needed.

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