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I keep hearing the term "inversion layer" when reading about pollution and meteorology.

I know it vaguely amounts to "some place where the gradient of temperature is inverted". But why are inversion layers so important in meteorology ? Why do they matter ? Air is colder here ... Big deal ! ?

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Put it this way:

We like our air to be mixed around well. Mixing the air prevents uneven concentration buildup of not just pollutants (smoke, ozone, chemicals, etc), but also fog (which is pooling of cool and moist air), smells, even sounds (that's why you can often hear distant traffic more near dawn).

There are two places that air near the ground can go: up or out.

Warmer air rises. When an inversion sets up, it's a layer of warmer air aloft that thereby blocks air below from being able to rise anymore.
Most nights there are inversions since the ground cools more quickly than the air higher up. But usually during the day, sunlight heating the ground starts the air rising and mixing around. And viola, no more unpleasant buildups!

But additionally, inversions also are formed when cold air is blown in near ground level, such as during a cold front. But, the peak of such a cold airmass generally associates with high pressure.
And high pressure cores have calmer horizontal winds.
So when such a cold high pressure gets stuck and parks in place, it can lead to prolonged inversions.

Additionally, inversions tend to be self-perpetuating over time. Fog and smoke form, block out the sun, and those just keep the low-level air layer cold.

It can be very difficult to forecast just how much the inversion will break down during the day, leading to greatly busted forecasts. I remember many times in Oklahoma where they thought it would warm up a fairly typical 20 degrees (F) during the day, but the fog never fully eroded, and we only ended up rising a few degrees. We also ended up having solid weeks or more of foggy conditions.

Furthermore, the geography in some regions favors inversion formation, and so inversion forecasting inversions can be particularly important for such locations. Sometimes these features can even enhance storm systems or alter their tracks. For more on these targets, look into cold air damming and marine layers.

Inversion conditions also can prove to be quite important flies-in-the-ointment for severe storm forecasting as well. Severe thunderstorms often rely quite a lot on afternoon heating to fuel the rapid updrafts of the storms. Sometimes the same mugginess that highlights that conditions are ripe for storms can wind up being so rich that fog and low-level clouds develop overnight, and prove resilient well into the day. The result can be that the forecast severe weather outbreaks ends up coming to nothing. Or instead, if a fog inversion were expected but doesn't materialize it can often generate unexpected or incorrectly timed severe weather outbreaks. So severe weather forecasters have significant interest in understanding inversions as well.

So... inversions form most every day, but typically as the day evolves, the atmospheric heating engine kicks in, and wind resets the atmosphere towards being more homogeneous. But when stronger inversions build in, they can snowball into much more depressing, and even very dangerous conditions.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very nice answer, inversion layers now seem central to all of meteorology, impressive ! One question on cold fronts having high pressure : I've always seen the opposite in books, warm front of high pressure "creeping in from above" and colder front sneaking under bringing low pressure. What am I missing ? $\endgroup$ – Jiby Dec 16 '16 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ Active fronts themselves are local "troughs" of low pressure, extending out from the central low pressure core, see goo.gl/ik3qx0 (at least for our lower part of the atmosphere). So those fronts... where the airmass STARTS to change... are low pressure. But behind the front, more and more cold air pools in, which is dense (thicker = more air = more pressure). So you basically end up with the highest pressures near the PEAK of cold air masses. Hope that helps, and if not, ask a separate question, and I'll try to put together some more material :-) $\endgroup$ – JeopardyTempest Dec 17 '16 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ Right, that cleans up my understanding (but so many more questions ! Earth science is fascinating). $\endgroup$ – Jiby Dec 17 '16 at 1:28
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Farrenthope is correct, but I would like to add some detail.

An inversion occurs when the air is warmer than the ground. It is called an inversion because it is the opposite of what occurs during the day. During the day, the ground is heated by the sun and the air near the ground rises.

However, during clear and calm nights, the ground will cool faster than the air. This means that at a certain time, the air will be warmer than the ground. With nothing to move pollutants upward, the air just stagnates. People will still keep pumping pollutants out, with the pollution just accumulating. During the day, however, the pollutants are lifted upwards, and do not stagnate.

For those mathematically affluent, the equation for a concentration of a pollutant can be written as $$\frac{\partial c}{\partial t}=-\vec{v}\cdot\nabla_h c-w\frac{\partial c}{\partial z}+\nabla \cdot (K\nabla c) +S_c(t)+C$$

where $c$ is the concentration of the pollutant, $\vec{v}$ is the wind vector, $w$ is the vertical velocity, $K$ is the Fick's law constant, and $C$ is the chemistry term.

If we consider the following assumptions which are common, regardless of an inversion:

  • Diffusion is a small process ($K\approx0$)
  • The pollutant undergoes no chemical change ($C\approx0$) The equation boils down to $$\frac{\partial c}{\partial t}=-\vec{v}\cdot\nabla_h c-w\frac{\partial c}{\partial z}+S_c(t)$$

During an inversion, because air at the surface is not going up, there is no air going down. This means $w\approx0$. With no vertical velocity, the air near the ground is slowed by the drag the ground has on the air, making $\vec{v}\approx0$. This boils the equation down to $$\frac{\partial c}{\partial t}=S_c$$. Since $S_c \ge0$, $c$ will just keep increasing.

A good example of a dangerous inversion is the Donora event.

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Temperature inversions are important to meteorology and pollution because they are the boundary for atmospheric mixing. If there is a strong inversion, the air above and below an inversion do not easily mix together. In the case of pollution, where the emissions come from the surface, a shallow temperature inversion in the boundary layer traps the pollution near the surface. If the boundary layer inversion is very high up in the atmosphere, you will get good mixing and pollution will be diluted. There is also a very strong temperature inversion at the top of the troposphere, called the tropopause, which generally separates stratospheric air from the troposphere.

Also, see this related question: What is a temperature inversion and can it trap smog pollution?

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