Technical note: The role of evolving surface tension in the formation of cloud droplets

Davies, James F.; Zuend, Andreas; Wilson, Kevin R.

The role of surface tension (σ) in cloud droplet activation has long been ambiguous. Recent studies have reported observations attributed to the effects of an evolving surface tension in the activation process. However, the adoption of a surface-mediated activation mechanism has been slow and many studies continue to neglect the composition dependence of aerosol–droplet surface tension, using instead a value equal to the surface tension of pure water (σw). In this technical note, we clearly describe the fundamental role of surface tension in the activation of multicomponent aerosol particles into cloud droplets. It is demonstrated that the effects of surface tension in the activation process depend primarily on the evolution of surface tension with droplet size, typically varying in the range 0.5σw≲σ≤σw due to the partitioning of organic species with a high surface affinity. We go on to report some recent laboratory observations that exhibit behavior that may be associated with surface tension effects and propose a measurement coordinate that will allow surface tension effects to be better identified using standard atmospheric measurement techniques. Unfortunately, interpreting observations using theory based on surface film and liquid–liquid phase separation models remains a challenge. Our findings highlight the need for experimental measurements that better reveal the role of composition-dependent surface tensions, critical for advancing predictive theories and parameterizations of cloud droplet activation.

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Davies, James F. / Zuend, Andreas / Wilson, Kevin R.: Technical note: The role of evolving surface tension in the formation of cloud droplets. 2019. Copernicus Publications.

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