How does fog form?

How does fog form? — KB

The interface between a droplet of water and the air around it is a busy place. Water molecules are constantly leaving the droplet to become water vapor in the air and water molecules in the air are constantly returning to the droplet as liquid water. What determines whether the droplet grows or shrinks is the difference between these two rates. If more water molecules return to the droplet than leave, the droplet will grow. If more water molecules leave the droplet than return, the droplet will shrink. How often water molecules leave the droplet depends on the droplet’s temperature. How often water molecules return to the droplet depends on the moisture content of the air.

This dynamic balance of growth and shrinkage occurs right in the middle of the air all the time. Tiny water droplets form by accident, even in reasonably dry air, but in most cases they quickly shrink back to nothing because the leaving rate is higher than the returning rate. However, when air that contains lots of moisture experiences a decrease in temperature, the returning rate can exceed the leaving rate. When that happens, the tiny droplets that appear by accident don’t immediately disappear. Instead, they grow larger and larger. Depending on the altitude, we call the white mist that results clouds or fog.

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