I travel a lot. Family is always a flight away, and, as many of you know, flying isn’t always the most reliable or stress free mode of transportation. My trip always includes a connection and it seems like something always tries to go wrong to make me miss that second flight. That’s why I’m always on the first flight out, especially during the warm months.
You’ve seen this image before. It’s just a pot a boiling water. Ever wonder why it bubbles and roars like that? It’s kind of like the atmosphere. Heat is applied to the water from the bottom. That’s not the way nature would like it. Water closer to the bottom of the pot becomes warmer than the water near the top.
So what does all this have to do with flying in the summer? I’m getting there! It turns out that the atmosphere is just like a pot of water.
The top of the atmosphere is cooler than the bottom part near the surface.
The surface (the ground) is actually just like that heat under the pot of water. The majority of the sun’s energy actually passes right through the atmosphere without warming the air. Most of it is absorbed by the surface, which then gives off that energy in the form of heat. This heated surface heats the air right above it causing warmer air at the bottom and cooler air on top. Just like in the pot of water, the warmer air rises and the cooler air drops lower.
This process of heating the earth repeats itself everyday. Take a look at the sky over the course of a mid-summer day, maybe even one this week. Early in the morning the sky is probably clear. There may be a few high clouds, or some fog, but none of those puffy white storm clouds. Skies stay clear through mid-morning but around midday those clear skies begin to fill with little white puffy clouds. As the afternoon goes on the clouds grow larger, maybe more numerous, and some MUCH taller. By late afternoon some of those clouds get so high that they actually turn into showers and storms.
I took the photo on the right last week while flying out of Atlanta. It was warm, humid and about midday. The temperatures were just getting warm enough where some of that air near the surface was light enough to raise to the top. As it flows up, it cools, condenses and forms sct’d clouds. Most of these clouds don’t do much. But some, grow tall and become storms. The problem is, we cannot predict which cloud will be the one that grows into that big storm. Think about that pot of boiling water. I bet you can predict when the bubbles will form and that they will bubble. But can you predict which bubble will be larger and which smaller? It’s too random to predict, just like pop-up afternoon summer storms.
The image on the left was taken a little later in the flight. Temperatures had warmed a little more and one of those clouds was able to get high enough to turn into a shower and maybe eventually into a storm. Notice how random it is. It’s just one, isolated cloud among a field of thousands, all of which had the chance to become storms, but only one did. This type of storm development is impossible to predict in terms of when and where exactly it will happen.
So, now, that 6am flight. Why do I always take it? It’s because of this daily convective pattern. Early in the morning the earth is cool, the air settled. No turning, no convection, no moving up and down in the atmosphere. The flights are smooth, the storms absent and the flights are on time. It’s the afternoon and evening when the problems always occur. As the atmosphere heats, storms pop. Get those storms near a hub airport and airplanes are delayed, rerouted and flights cancelled. Check it out online, the chances of a flight being delayed before 9am are much lower than the chances of it being delayed late in the afternoon or evening. Now, add to the fact that planes travel to multiple airports in any one day and the presence of storms during any one of those flights will throw off the rest of the schedule for that plane that day.
There is one last reason why that 6am flight is the one to go on: It’s probably the only flight you’ll be on all day that actually is waiting for you at the airport. You see, the plane that leaves at 6am gets in the night before and waits overnight at the airport. You’re not waiting for it to come in from another city that morning. If it is delayed, it will happen the night before and you will know hours before you have to get on it the next morning.
So the next time you fly, grab a cup of coffee or a pillow, bring it on-board, I’ll see you there, 6am sharp!
Weather “Dork” Dee