Virga Rain: Explaining Virga And How It Occurs

Virga-Rain - Explaining What Virga Is And-How It Occurs

You may not have heard of virga before, but the chances are good that you already saw the phenomenon it refers to, more than once. 

This meteorological event is actually a very common occurrence and appears throughout the world wherever precipitation takes place.

If you ever observed a cloud and noticed wispy streaks of rain forming at its base, only to disappear into "thin air," you saw what is commonly known as virga. And your eyes are not deceiving you.

Even a weather radar can clearly identify the presence of rain in a cloud, yet nothing reaches the surfaces. It may seem inexplicable, but there is a very logical explanation for this event.

In this post, we look at what virga is, its characteristics, as well as how it forms. 

Virga Definition

The introduction already provided a clear indication of what virga entails. Before continuing, though, one needs to establish a concise definition of what precisely the phenomenon is. 

What Is Virga?

What Is Virga

Virga is a meteorological phenomenon where precipitation can be observed forming at the base of a rain cloud but disappear before reaching the ground as a result of evaporation or sublimation.

Simply put, virga is precipitation that forms at the base of a cloud but never reach the ground.  Depending on height, the type of precipitation can be solid (snow) or liquid (rain), but usually manifest in the form of rain.

The virga rain is visible as wispy light-colored streaks or tails that extend below the cloud base before disappearing in mid-air.

Virga clouds are also commonly known as jellyfish clouds due to their shape. The puffy structure and dark base of a cumulus type cloud represent the body, while the light streaks of rain below it resemble the tentacles of a jellyfish.

The types of clouds associated with this occurrence are, in general, the type that produces precipitation. They include cumulus, nimbostratus, cumulonimbus, stratocumulus, and altocumulus clouds.

How Virga Occurs

Rain forming at the cloud base level and then suddenly "disappear" in mid-air is quite common, as mentioned in the introduction. The reason you don't see it more often is that it does not always appear in view or at an angle, which makes it more visible.

The rain does not actually disappear. It merely changes from a liquid (rain) into a gas (water vapor) through a process of evaporation or sublimation, making it invisible to the naked eye.

The following steps provide a concise summary of how virga occurs in general:

  1. 1
    Clouds form when moist air cools down to the point of condensation. The resulting microdroplets making up a cloud, are also the source of precipitation.
  2. 2
    The microdroplets crash into each other and combine to form larger droplets of water. When they become too heavy, gravity causes it to fall to the ground as rain.
  3. 3
    In the case of virga, raindrops falling from a cloud usually encounters a layer of warm, dry air. The heat and lack of humidity in the air cause the rain to evaporate or sublimate (turning it back into its gaseous state).
  4. 4
    Evaporation takes place when precipitation changes from its liquid form to gas (raindrops to water vapor). Sublimation takes place when precipitation turns from its solid state directly into a gas (snow to water vapor).
  5. 5
    Virga typically occurs in deserts or other regions with low humidity. It also forms at high altitudes where small ice crystals quickly turn into water vapor as a result of adiabatic compression.
  6. 6
    Evaporation is a cooling process, meaning the virga rain that evaporates leaves a pocket of cold air behind. The cold air can accelerate to the ground at a rapid pace, resulting in a dry downburst, which creates dangerous, unstable weather.
  7. 7
    Unstable weather conditions also occur higher in the atmospheric where virga is the result of adiabatic compression. This heats the air, which causes pockets of warm & cold air at the same altitude, the perfect recipe for turbulent conditions.
  8. 8
    Virga rain is also known as fallstreaks due to its appearance and location beneath the cloud base.

Virga forms in many different ways, but the general steps in which it occurs as well as the characteristics it display, follow the same path as illustrated in the steps above. 

Conclusion

Virga is a common experience, observed almost everywhere precipitation takes place. The rain which drops halfway from the cloud base before disappearing remains a strange sight. This article, however, illustrated how the phenomenon occurs in a perfectly logical way.

The focus of this post was to explain what virga is, how it occurs, and highlight its most essential characteristics.

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Until next time, keep your eye on the weather!

Wessel


Wessel Wessels
 

Lifelong weather enthusiast and researcher. Interested in all things weather-related, and how global climate and local weather interact. Owner of multiple home weather stations for almost two decades, but still learning and expanding his knowledge base every day. He is dedicated to sharing his expertise and knowledge to get more people involved and interested in both their local and global weather and how it interacts with climate on a worldwide scale. Love sharing my knowledge on home weather stations, how they work, and the many ways you can use them to your advantage. All in all, he is just a bit of weather nerd.

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