temperature inversion, condition in which the temperature of the atmosphere increases with altitude in contrast to the normal decrease with altitude. When temperature inversion occurs, cold air underlies warmer air at higher altitudes. Temperature inversion may occur during the passage of a cold front or result from the invasion of sea air by a cooler onshore breeze. Overnight radiative cooling of surface air often results in a nocturnal temperature inversion that is dissipated after sunrise by the warming of air near the ground. A more long-lived temperature inversion accompanies the dynamics of the large high-pressure systems depicted on weather maps. Descending currents of air near the center of the high-pressure system produce a warming (by adiabatic compression), causing air at middle altitudes to become warmer than the surface air. Rising currents of cool air lose their buoyancy and are thereby inhibited from rising further when they reach the warmer, less dense air in the upper layers of a temperature inversion. During a temperature inversion, air pollution released into the atmosphere's lowest layer is trapped there and can be removed only by strong horizontal winds. Because high-pressure systems often combine temperature inversion conditions and low wind speeds, their long residency over an industrial area usually results in episodes of severe smog.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.