One important mechanism of convection, whether in the air, water, or even the solid earth, is the convective cell, sometimes known as the convection cell. The latter may be defined as the circular pattern created by the rising of warmed fluid and the sinking of cooled fluid. Convective cells may be only a few millimeters across, or they may be larger than Earth itself.
These cells can be observed on a number of scales. Inside a bowl of soup, heated fluid rises, and cooled fluid drops. These processes are usually hard to see unless the dish in question happens to be one such as Japanese miso soup. In this case, pieces of soybean paste, or miso, can be observed as they rise when heated and then drop down into the interior to be heated again.
On a vastly greater scale, convective cells are present in the Sun. These vast cells appear on the Sun's surface as a grainy pattern formed by the
A cumulonimbus cloud, or "thunderhead," is a particularly dramatic example of a convection cell. These are some of the most striking cloud formations one ever sees, and for this reason the director Akira Kurosawa used scenes of
Convective cells, along with convection currents, help explain why there is usually a breeze at the beach. At the seaside, of course, there is a land surface and a water surface, both exposed to the Sun's light. Under such exposure, the temperature of land rises more quickly than that of water. The reason is that water has an extraordinarily high specific heat capacity—that is, the amount of heat that must be added to or removed from a unit of mass for a given substance to change its temperature by 33.8°F (1°C). Thus a lake, stream, or ocean is always a good place to cool down on a hot summer day.
The land, then, tends to heat up more quickly, as does the air above it. This heated air rises in a convection current, but as it rises and thus overcomes the pull of gravity, it expends energy and therefore begins to cool. The cooled air then sinks. And so it goes, with the heated air rising and the cooling air sinking, forming a convective cell that continually circulates air, creating a breeze.
Convective cells also can exist in the solid earth, where they cause the plates (movable segments) of the lithosphere—the upper layer of Earth's interior, including the crust and the brittle portion at the top of the mantle—to shift. They thus play a role in plate tectonics, one of the most important areas of study in the earth sciences. Plate tectonics explains a variety of phenomena, ranging from continental drift to earthquakes and volcanoes. (See Plate Tectonics for much more on this subject.)
Whereas the Sun's electromagnetic energy is the source of heat behind atmospheric convection, the energy that drives geologic convection is geothermal, rising up from Earth's core as a result of radioactive decay. (See Energy and Earth.) The convective cells form in the asthenosphere, a region of extremely high pressure at a depth of about 60-215 mi. (about 100-350 km), where rocks are deformed by enormous stresses.
In the asthenosphere, heated material rises in a convection current until it hits the bottom of the lithosphere (the upper layer of Earth's interior, comprising the crust and the top of the mantle), beyond which it cannot rise. Therefore it begins moving laterally or horizontally, and as it does so, it drags part of the lithosphere. At the same time, this heated material pushes away cooler, denser material in its path. The cooler material sinks lower into the mantle (the thick, dense layer of rock, approximately 1,429 mi. [2,300 km] thick, between Earth's crust and core) until it heats again and ultimately rises up, thus propagating the cycle.
As with convective cells, subsidence can occur in the atmosphere or geosphere. The term subsidence can refer either to the process of subsiding, on the part of air or solid earth, or, in the case of solid earth, to the resulting formation. It thus is defined variously as the downward movement of air, the sinking of ground, or a depression in the earth. In the present context we will discuss atmospheric subsidence, which is more closely related to convection. (For more about geologic subsidence, see the entries Geomorphology and Mass Wasting.)
In the atmosphere, subsidence results from a disturbance in the normal upward flow of convection currents. These currents may act to set up a convective cell, as we have seen, resulting in the flow of breeze. The water vapor in the air may condense as it cools, changing state to a liquid and forming clouds. Convection can create an area of low pressure, accompanied by converging winds, near Earth's surface, a phenomenon known as a cyclone. On the other hand, if subsidence occurs, it results in the creation of a high-pressure area known as an anticyclone.
Air parcels continue to rise in convective currents until the density of their upper portion is equal to that of the surrounding atmosphere, at which point the column of air stabilizes. On the other hand, subsidence may occur if air at an altitude of several thousand feet becomes denser than the surrounding air without necessarily being cooler or moister. In fact, this air is unusually dry, and it may be warm or cold. Its density then makes it sink, and, as it does, it compresses the air around it. The result is high pressure at the surface and diverging winds just above the surface.
The form of atmospheric subsidence described here produces pleasant results, explaining why high-pressure systems usually are associated with fair weather. On the other hand, if the subsiding air settles onto a cooler lay of air, it creates what is known as a subsidence inversion, and the results are much less beneficial. In this situation a warm air layer becomes trapped between cooler layers above and below it, at a height of several hundred or even several thousand feet. This means that air pollution is trapped as well, creating a potential health hazard. Subsidence inversions occur most often in the far north during the winter and in the eastern United States during the late summer.
Up to this point we have spoken primarily of convection in the atmosphere and the geosphere, but it is of importance also in the oceans. The miso soup example given earlier illustrates the movement of fluid, and hence of particles, that can occur when a convective cell is set up in a liquid.
Likewise, in the ocean convection—driven both by heat from the surface and, to a greater extent, by geothermal energy at the bottom—keeps the waters in constant circulation. Oceanic convection results in the transfer of heat throughout the depths and keeps the ocean stably stratified. In other words, the strata, or layers, corresponding to various temperature levels are kept stable and do not wildly fluctuate.
Ocean waters fit the most common, everyday definition of fluid, but as noted at the beginning of this essay, a fluid can be anything that flows—including a gas or, in special circumstances, a solid. Solid rocks or solid ice, in the form of glaciers, can be made to flow if the materials are deformed sufficiently. This occurs, for instance, when the weight of a glacier deforms ice at the bottom, thus causing the glacier as a whole to move. Likewise, geothermal energy can heat rock and cause it to flow, setting into motion the convective process of plate tectonics, described earlier, which literally moves the earth.
Educator's Guide to Convection (Web site). <http://www.solarviews.com/eng/edu/convect.htm> .
Erickson, Jon. Plate Tectonics: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Earth. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Hess, Harry. "History of Ocean Basins" (Web site). <http://www-geology.ucdavis.edu/~GEL102/hess/jesse.htm> .
Jones, Helen. Open-Ocean Deep Convection: A Field Guide (Web site). <http://puddle.mit.edu/~helen/oodc.html> .
Ocean Oasis Teacher's Guide Activity 4 (Web site). <http://www.oceanoasis.org/teachersguide/activity4.html> .
Santrey, Laurence, and Lloyd Birmingham. Heat. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, 1985.
Scorer, R. S., and Arjen Verkaik. Spacious Skies. Newton Abbot, England: David and Charles, 1989.
Sigurdsson, Haraldur. Melting the Earth: The History of Ideas on Volcanic Eruptions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Skinner, Brian J., Stephen C. Porter, and Daniel B. Botkin. The Blue Planet: An Introduction to Earth System Science. 5th ed. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1999.
Smith, David G. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Earth Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.