Nonprecipitating Shallow Cumulus Convection Is Intrinsically Unstable to Length Scale Growth

Martin Janssens*, Jordi Vilà-Guerau De Arellano, Chiel C. Van Heerwaarden, Stephan R. De Roode, A. Pier Siebesma, Franziska Glassmeier

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
29 Downloads (Pure)


Condensation in cumulus clouds plays a key role in structuring the mean, nonprecipitating trade wind boundary layer. Here, we summarize how this role also explains the spontaneous growth of mesoscale [.O(10) km] fluctuations in clouds and moisture around the mean state in a minimal-physics, large-eddy simulation of the undisturbed period during BOMEX on a large [O(100) km] domain. Small, spatial anomalies in condensation in cumulus clouds, which form on top of small moisture fluctuations, power circulations that transport moisture, but not heat, from dry to moist regions, and thus reinforce the condensation anomaly. We frame this positive feedback as a linear instability in mesoscale moisture fluctuations, whose time scale depends only on (i) a vertical velocity scale and (ii) the mean environment's vertical structure. In our minimal-physics setting, we show both ingredients are provided by the shallow cumulus convection itself: it is intrinsically unstable to length scale growth. The upshot is that energy released by clouds at kilometer scales may play a more profound and direct role in shaping the mesoscale trade wind environment than is generally appreciated, motivating further research into the mechanism's relevance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)849-870
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of the Atmospheric Sciences
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Convection
  • Cumulus clouds
  • Instability


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