Self-aggregation of clouds in conditionally unstable moist convection

Olivier Pauluis, Jörg Schumacher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The behavior of moist Rayleigh-Bénard convection is investigated using a Boussinesq model with a simplified thermodynamics for phase transitions. This idealized configuration makes the problem accessible to high-resolution three-dimensional direct numerical simulations without small-scale parameterizations of the turbulence for extended layers with aspect ratios up to 64. Our study is focused on the frequently observed conditionally unstable environment that is stably stratified for unsaturated air, but is unstable for cloudy air. We find that no sharp threshold for the transition to convective turbulence exists, a situation similar to wall-bounded shear flows. Rather, the transition depends on the amplitude of the initial perturbation of the quiescent equilibrium and on the aspect ratio of the convective domain. In contrast to the classical dry Rayleigh-Bénard case, convection is highly asymmetric with respect to the vertical direction. Moist upwelling air inside turbulent cloud aggregates is surrounded by ambient regions of slowly descending unsaturated air. It is also found that conditionally unstable moist convection is inefficient at transporting energy. Our study suggests that there is an upper bound on the Nusselt number in moist convection that is lower than that of the classical dry case.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12623-12628
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number31
StatePublished - Aug 2 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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