Horizontal and vertical distribution of temperature, inversion of temperature


The temperature is the measurement in degrees of how hot (or cold) a thing (or a place) is.
The temperature of the atmosphere is not same across the Earth. It varies in spatial and temporal dimensions. The temperature of a place depends largely on the insolation received by that place. The interaction of insolation with the atmosphere and the earth’s surface creates heat which is measured in terms of temperature. It is important to know about the temperature distribution over the surface of the earth to understand the weather, climate, vegetation zones, animal and human life etc. following factors determine the temperature of air at any place.

  1. The latitude of the place – Intensity of insolation depends on the latitude. The amount of insolation depends on the inclination of sun rays, which is further depends upon the latitude of the place. At the equator sun’s rays fall directly overhead throughout the year. Away from the equator towards poles, the inclination of the Sun’s rays increases. In conclusion, if other things remain the same, the temperature of air goes on decreasing from the equator towards poles.
  2. The altitude of the place – the atmosphere is largely heated indirectly by re-radiated terrestrial radiation from the earth’s surface. Therefore, the lower layers of the atmosphere are comparatively warmer than the upper layers, even in the same latitudes. For example, Ambala (30 21’ N) and Shimla (31 6’) are almost at the same latitude. But the average temperature of shimla is much lower than the Ambala. It is because Ambala is located in plain at an altitude of 272 m above sea level whereas Shimla is located at an altitude of 2202 m above sea level. In other words, the temperature generally decreases with increasing height (figure 6(a)). The rate of decrease of temperature with height is termed as the normal lapse rate. It is 6.5°C per 1,000 m. That’s why, the mountains, even in the equatorial region, have snow covered peaks, like Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa.
  3. Distance from the Sea – the land surface is heated at a faster rate than the water N surface. Thus the temperature of the air over land and water surfaces is not the same Student Notes: at a given time. In summers, the sea water is cooler than the land and in winters, land is much colder than the sea water. The coastal areas experience the sea breezes during the daytime and the land breezes during the night time. This has a moderating influence on the temperature of the coastal areas. Against this the places in the interior, far away from the sea, have extreme climate. The daily range of temperature is less near the coastal area and it increases with increase in distance from the sea coast (figure 6(b)). The low daily range of temperature is the characteristic of marine climate. That’s why, the people of Mumbai have hardly any idea of extremes of temperature.

(a) Horizontal Distribution of Temperature
Distribution of temperature across the latitudes over the surface of the earth is called its horizontal distribution. On maps, the horizontal distribution of temperature is commonly shown by “Isotherms”, lines connecting points that have equal temperatures. An isotherm is made of two words ‘iso’ and ‘therm’, ‘Iso’ means equal and ‘therm’ means” temperature. If you study an isotherm map you will find that the distribution of temperature is uneven. The factors responsible for the uneven distribution of temperature are as follows:
(i) Latitude
(ii) Land and Sea Contrast
(iii) Relief and Altitude
(iv) Ocean Currents
(v) Winds
(vi) Vegetation Cover
(vii) Nature of the soil
(viii) Slope and Aspect

(b) Vertical Distribution of Temperature
The permanent snow on high mountains, even in the tropics, indicate the decrease of temperature with altitute. Observations reveals that there is a fairly regular decrease in temperature with an increase in altitude. The average rate of temperature decrease upward in the troposphere is about 6 C per km, extending to the tropopause. This vertical gradient of temperature is commonly referred to as the standard atmosphere or normal lapse rate, but is varies with height, season, latitude and other factors. Indeed the actual lapse rate of temperature does not always show a decrease with altitude.

Temperature Inversion

Temperature decreases with increase in altitude. In normal conditions, as we go up, temperature decreases with normal lapse rate. It is 6.5°C per 1,000 m. Against this normal rule sometimes, instead of decreasing, temperature may rise with the height gained. The cooler air is nearer the earth and the warmer air is aloft. This rise of temperature with height is known as Temperature inversion. Temperature inversion takes place under certain specific conditions. These are discussed below:

  •  Long winter nights – if in winters the sky is clear during long nights, the terrestrial radiation is accelerated. The reason is that the land surface gets cooled fairly quickly. The bottom layer of atmosphere in contact with the ground is also cooled and the upper layer remains relatively warm.
  • Cloudless clear sky – The clouds obstruct the terrestrial radiation. But this radiation does not face any obstacles for being reflected into space when the sky is clear. Therefore the ground is cooled quickly and so is the air in contact with it cooled.
  • Dry air – humid air absorbs the terrestrial radiation but dry air is no obstruction to terrestrial radiation and allows the radiation to escape into space.
  • Calm atmosphere – the blowing of winds bring warm and cold air into contact. Under conditions of calm atmosphere the cold air stays put near the ground.
  • Ice covered surface – in ice covered areas due to high albedo less insolation is received. During night due to terrestrial radiation most of the heat is lost to atmosphere and the surface is cooled. The air in contact with it is also cooled but the upper layer remains warm.


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