I am wondering the difference between water vapor content and specific humidity to determine the moisture availability in the atmosphere. Which one is more acceptable variable to determine the moisture availability in the atmosphere?

I need to show the moisture availability in the atmosphere in my study. So should I explain it through water vapor content or through specific humidity? I will explain the rainfall deficiency over a region


1 Answer 1


For a study relating to rainfall, I would be inclined to look at total column water vapour (TCWV), also known as integrated water vapour (IWV) or precipitable water. They're all (more or less) the same thing.

The company Remote Sensing Systems describes it as:

Total column water vapor is a measure of the total gaseous water contained in a vertical column of atmosphere. It is quite different from the more familiar relative humidity, which is the amount of water vapor in air relative to the amount of water vapor the air is capable of holding. Atmospheric water vapor is the absolute amount of water dissolved in air. When measured in linear units (millimeters, mm), it is the height (or depth) the water would occupy if the vapor were condensed into liquid and spread evenly across the column. Using the density of water, we can also report water vapor in kg/m2 = 1 mm or g/cm2 = 10 mm.

For rain to form, clouds need to form first. Clouds need cloud condensation nuclei, but crucially, for clouds to form, the water vapour partial pressure needs to reach the saturation vapour pressure. The latter is strongly dependent on temperature (Clausius-Clapeyron relation), so a profile of relative humidity is not the most directly useful quantity. The total column water vapour describes how much liquid water might form, which is why it is sometimes even described as precipitable water.

You can get this product either from reanalysis (like ERA-5) or retrieved from hyperspectral infrared sounders, such as IASI, AIRS, or CrIS. Depending on where and when in the world you're looking at, there may also exist products from geostationary instruments.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.