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On clocks and clouds

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Abstract. Cumulus clouds exhibit a life cycle that consists of (a) the growth phase (increasing size, most notably in the vertical direction); (b) the mature phase (growth ceases; any precipitation that develops is strongest during this period); and (c) the dissipation phase (cloud dissipates because of precipitation and/or entrainment; no more dynamical support). Although radar can track clouds over time and give some sense of the age of a cloud, most aircraft in situ measurements lack temporal context. We use large eddy simulations of trade wind cumulus cloud fields from cases during the Barbados Oceanographic and Meteorological Experiment (BOMEX) and Rain In Cumulus over the Ocean (RICO) campaigns to demonstrate a potential cumulus cloud "clock." We find that the volume-averaged total water mixing ratio rt is a useful cloud clock for the 12 clouds studied. A cloud's initial rt is set by the subcloud mixed-layer mean rt and decreases monotonically from the initial value due primarily to entrainment. The clock is insensitive to aerosol loading, environmental sounding and extrinsic cloud properties such as lifetime and volume. In some cases (more commonly for larger clouds), multiple pulses of buoyancy occur, which complicate the cumulus clock by replenishing rt. The clock is most effectively used to classify clouds by life phase.

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