Perhaps the most impressive of cloud formations, cumulonimbus (from the Latin for “pile” and “rain cloud”)
clouds form due to vigorous convection (rising and overturning) of warm, moist, and unstable air.
Surface air is warmed by the Sun-heated ground surface and rises;
if sufficient atmospheric moisture is present, water droplets will condense as the air mass encounters
cooler air at higher altitudes.
The air mass itself also expands and cools as it rises due to decreasing atmospheric pressure, a process known as adiabatic cooling.
This type of convection is common in tropical latitudes year-round and during the summer season at higher latitudes.
As water in the rising air mass condenses and changes from a gas to a liquid state, it releases energy to its surroundings,
further heating the surrounding air and leading to more convection and rising of the cloud mass to higher altitudes.
This leads to the characteristic vertical “towers” associated with cumulonimbus clouds, an excellent example of
which is visible in this astronaut photograph. If enough moisture is present to condense and heat the cloud
mass through several convective cycles, a tower can rise to altitudes of approximately 10 kilometers at high latitudes
and to 20 kilometers in the tropics before encountering a region of the atmosphere known as the tropopause—
the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere. For more info, visit NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr.
[NASA April 21, 2010]