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Water Vapor
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Learn about Water Vapor
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The Water Vapor map shows areas of moist and dry air at mid-levels of the atmosphere (about 12,000 feet). Water vapor or water vapour, also aqueous vapor, is the gas phase of water. Water vapor is one state of the water cycle within the hydrosphere. Water vapor can be produced from the evaporation of liquid water or from the sublimation of ice. Under normal atmospheric conditions, water vapor is continuously generated by evaporation and removed by condensation.

Whenever a water molecule leaves a surface, it is said to have evaporated. Each individual water molecule which transitions between a more associated (liquid) and a less associated (vapor/gas) state does so through the absorption or release of kinetic energy. The aggregate measurement of this kinetic energy transfer is defined as thermal energy and occurs only when there is differential in the temperature of the water molecules. Liquid water that becomes water vapor takes a parcel of heat with it, in a process called evaporative cooling. The amount of water vapor in the air determines how fast each molecule will return back to the surface. When a net evaporation occurs, the body of water will undergo a net cooling directly related to the loss of water.

Evaporative cooling is restricted by atmospheric conditions. Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air. The vapor content of air is measured with devices known as hygrometers. The measurements are usually expressed as specific humidity or percent relative humidity. The temperatures of the atmosphere and the water surface determine the equilibrium vapor pressure; 100% relative humidity occurs when the partial pressure of water vapor is equal to the equilibrium vapor pressure. This condition is often referred to as complete saturation. Humidity ranges from 0 gram per cubic metre in dry air to 30 grams per cubic metre (0.03 ounce per cubic foot) when the vapour is saturated at 30°C.

Another form of evaporation is sublimation, by which water molecules become gaseous directly from ice without first becoming liquid water. Sublimation accounts for the slow mid-winter disappearance of ice and snow at temperatures too low to cause melting.

Water vapor will only condense onto another surface when that surface is cooler than the temperature of the water vapor, or when the water vapor equilibrium in air has been exceeded. When water vapor condenses onto a surface, a net warming occurs on that surface. The water molecule brings a parcel of heat with it. In turn, the temperature of the atmosphere drops slightly. In the atmosphere, condensation produces clouds, fog and precipitation (usually only when facilitated by cloud condensation nuclei). The dew point of an air parcel is the temperature to which it must cool before water vapor in the air begins to condense.

Also, a net condensation of water vapor occurs on surface when the temperature of the surface is at or below the dew point temperature of the atmosphere. Deposition, the direct formation of ice from water vapor, is a type of condensation. Frost and snow are examples of deposition.