1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dew

DEW. The word “dew” (O.E. deaw; cf. Ger. Tau) is a very ancient one and its meaning must therefore be defined on historical principles. According to the New English Dictionary, it means “the moisture deposited in minute drops upon any cool surface by condensation of the vapour of the atmosphere; formed after a hot day, during or towards night and plentiful in the early morning.” Huxley in his Physiography makes the addition “without production of mist.” The formation of mist is not necessary for the formation of dew, nor does it necessarily prevent it. If the deposit of moisture is in the form of ice instead of water it is called hoarfrost. The researches of Aitken suggest that the words “by condensation of the vapour in the atmosphere” might be omitted from the definition. He has given reasons for believing that the large dewdrops on the leaves of plants, the most characteristic of all the phenomena of dew, are to be accounted for, in large measure at least, by the exuding of drops of water from the plant through the pores of the leaves themselves. The formation of dewdrops in such cases is the continuation of the irrigation process of the plant for supplying the leaves with water from the soil. The process is set up in full vigour in the daytime to maintain tolerable thermal conditions at the surface of the leaf in the hot sun, and continued after the sun has gone.

On the other hand, the most typical physical experiment illustrating the formation of dew is the production of a deposit of moisture, in minute drops, upon the exterior surface of a glass or polished metal vessel by the cooling of a liquid contained in the vessel. If the liquid is water, it can be cooled by pieces of ice; if volatile like ether, by bubbling air through it. No deposit is formed by this process until the temperature is reduced to a point which, from that circumstance, has received a special name, although it depends upon the state of the air round the vessel. So generally accepted is the physical analogy between the natural formation of dew and its artificial production in the manner described, that the point below which the temperature of a surface must be reduced in order to obtain the deposit is known as the “dew-point.”

In the view of physicists the dew-point is the temperature at which, by being cooled without change of pressure, the air becomes saturated with water vapour, not on account of any increase of supply of that compound, but by the diminution of the capacity of the air for holding it in the gaseous condition. Thus, when the dew-point temperature has been determined, the pressure of water vapour in the atmosphere at the time of the deposit is given by reference to a table of saturation pressures of water vapour at different temperatures. As it is a well-established proposition that the pressure of the water vapour in the air does not vary while the air is being cooled without change of its total external pressure, the saturation pressure at the dew-point gives the pressure of water vapour in the air when the cooling commenced. Thus the artificial formation of dew and consequent determination of the dew-point is a recognized method of measuring the pressure, and thence the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. The dew-point method is indeed in some ways a fundamental method of hygrometry.

The dew-point is a matter of really vital consequence in the question of the oppressiveness of the atmosphere or its reverse. So long as the dew-point is low, high temperature does not matter, but when the dew-point begins to approach the normal temperature of the human body the atmosphere becomes insupportable.

The physical explanation of the formation of dew consists practically in determining the process or processes by which leaves, blades of grass, stones, and other objects in the open air upon which dew may be observed, become cooled “below the dew-point.”

Formerly, from the time of Aristotle at least, dew was supposed to “fall.” That view of the process was not extinct at the time of Wordsworth and poets might even now use the figure without reproach. To Dr Charles Wells of London belongs the credit of bringing to a focus the ideas which originated with the study of radiation at the beginning of the 19th century, and which are expressed by saying that the cooling necessary to produce dew on exposed surfaces is to be attributed to the radiation from the surfaces to a clear sky. He gave an account of the theory of automatic cooling by radiation, which has found a place in all text-books of physics, in his first Essay on Dew published in 1818. The theory is supported in that and in a second essay by a number of well-planned observations, and the essays are indeed models of scientific method. The process of the formation of dew as represented by Wells is a simple one. It starts from the point of view that all bodies are constantly radiating heat, and cool automatically unless they receive a corresponding amount of heat from other bodies by radiation or conduction. Good radiators, which are at the same time bad conductors of heat, such as blades of grass, lose heat rapidly on a clear night by radiation to the sky and become cooled below the dew-point of the atmosphere.

The question was very fully studied by Melloni and others, but little more was added to the explanation given by Wells until 1885, when John Aitken of Falkirk called attention to the question whether the water of dewdrops on plants or stones came from the air or the earth, and described a number of experiments to show that under the conditions of observation in Scotland, it was the earth from which the moisture was probably obtained, either by the operation of the vascular system of plants in the formation of exuded dewdrops, or by evaporation and subsequent condensation in the lowest layer of the atmosphere. Some controversy was excited by the publication of Aitken’s views, and it is interesting to revert to it because it illustrates a proposition which is of general application in meteorological questions, namely, that the physical processes operative in the evolution of meteorological phenomena are generally complex. It is not radiation alone that is necessary to produce dew, nor even radiation from a body which does not conduct heat. The body must be surrounded by an atmosphere so fully supplied with moisture that the dew-point can be passed by the cooling due to radiation. Thus the conditions favourable for the formation of dew are (1) a good radiating surface, (2) a still atmosphere, (3) a clear sky, (4) thermal insulation of the radiating surface, (5) warm moist ground or some other provision to produce a supply of moisture in the surface layers of air.

Aitken’s contribution to the theory of dew shows that in considering the supply of moisture we must take into consideration the ground as well as the air and concern ourselves with the temperature of both. Of the five conditions mentioned, the first four may be considered necessary, but the fifth is very important for securing a copious deposit. It can hardly be maintained that no dew could form unless there were a supply of water by evaporation from warm ground, but, when such a supply is forthcoming, it is evident that in place of the limited process of condensation which deprives the air of its moisture and is therefore soon terminable, we have the process of distillation which goes on as long as conditions are maintained. This distinction is of some practical importance for it indicates the protecting power of wet soil in favour of young plants as against night frost. If distillation between the ground and the leaves is set up, the temperature of the leaves cannot fall much below the original dew-point because the supply of water for condensation is kept up; but if the compensation for loss of heat by radiation is dependent simply on the condensation of water from the atmosphere, without renewal of the supply, the dew-point will gradually get lower as the moisture is deposited and the process of cooling will go on.

In these questions we have to deal with comparatively large changes taking place within a small range of level. It is with the layer a few inches thick on either side of the surface that we are principally concerned, and for an adequate comprehension of the conditions close consideration is required. To illustrate this point reference may be made to figs. 1 and 2, which represent the condition of affairs at 10.40 P.M. on about the 20th of October 1885, according to observations by Aitken. Vertical distances represent heights in feet, while the temperatures of the air and the dew-point are represented by horizontal distances and their variations with height by the curved lines of the diagram. The line marked 0 is the ground level itself, a rather indefinite quantity when the surface is grass. The whole vertical distance represented is from 4 ft. above ground to 1 ft. below ground, and the special phenomena which we are considering take place in the layer which represents the rapid transition between the temperature of the ground 3 in. below the surface and that of the air a few inches above ground.

Britannica Dew 1.jpg  Britannica Dew 2.jpg
Fig. 1.    Fig. 2.

The point of interest is to determine where the dew-point curve and dry-bulb curve will cut. If they cut above the surface, mist will result; if they cut at the surface, dew will be formed. Below the surface, it may be assumed that the air is saturated with moisture and any difference in temperature of the dew-point is accompanied by distillation. It may be remarked, by the way, that such distillation between soil layers of different temperatures must be productive of the transference of large quantities of water between different levels in the soil either upward or downward according to the time of year.

These diagrams illustrate the importance of the warmth and moisture of the ground in the phenomena which have been considered. From the surface there is a continual loss of heat going on by radiation and a continual supply of warmth and moisture from below. But while the heat can escape, the moisture cannot. Thus the dry-bulb line is deflected to the left as it approaches the surface, the dew-point line to the right. Thus the effect of the moisture of the ground is to cause the lines to approach. In the case of grass, fig. 2, the deviation of the dry-bulb line to the left to form a sharp minimum of temperature at the surface is well shown. The dew-point line is also shown diverted to the left to the same point as the dry-bulb; but that could only happen if there were so copious a condensation from the atmosphere as actually to make the air drier at the surface than up above. In diagram 1, for soil, the effect on air temperature and moisture is shown; the two lines converge to cut at the surface where a dew deposit will be formed. Along the underground line there must be a gradual creeping of heat and moisture towards the surface by distillation, the more rapid the greater the temperature gradient.

The amount of dew deposited is considerable, and, in tropical countries, is sometimes sufficiently heavy to be collected by gutters and spouts, but it is not generally regarded as a large percentage of the total rainfall. Loesche estimates the amount of dew for a single night on the Loango coast at 3 mm., but the estimate seems a high one. Measurements go to show that the depth of water corresponding with the aggregate annual deposit of dew is 1 in. to 1.5 in. near London (G. Dines), 1.2 in. at Munich (Wollny), 0.3 in. at Montpellier (Crova), 1.6 in. at Tenbury, Worcestershire (Badgley).

With the question of the amount of water collected as dew, that of the maintenance of “dew ponds” is intimately associated. The name is given to certain isolated ponds on the upper levels of the chalk downs of the south of England and elsewhere. Some of these ponds are very ancient, as the title of a work on Neolithic Dewponds by A. J. and G. Hubbard indicates. Their name seems to imply the hypothesis that they depend upon dew and not entirely upon rain for their maintenance as a source of water supply for cattle, for which they are used. The question has been discussed a good deal, but not settled; the balance of evidence seems to be against the view that dew deposits make any important contribution to the supply of water. The construction of dew ponds is, however, still practised on traditional lines, and it is said that a new dew pond has first to be filled artificially. It does not come into existence by the gradual accumulation of water in an impervious basin.

Authorities.—For Dew, see the two essays by Dr Charles Wells (London, 1818), also “An Essay on Dew,” edited by Casella (London, 1866), Longmans', with additions by Strachan; Melloni, Pogg. Ann. lxxi. pp. 416, 424 and lxxiii. p. 467; Jamin, “Compléments à la théorie de la rosée,” Journal de physique, viii. p. 41; J. Aitken, on “Dew,” Trans. Roy. Soc. of Edinburgh, xxxiii., part i. 2, and “Nature,” vol. xxxiii. p. 256; C. Tomlinson, “Remarks on a new Theory of Dew,” Phil. Mag. (1886), 5th series, vol. 21, p. 483 and vol. 22, p. 270; Russell, Nature, vol 47, p. 210; also Met. Zeit. (1893), p. 390; Homén, Bodenphysikalische und meteorologische Beobachtungen (Berlin, 1894), iii.; Taubildung, p. 88, &c.; Rubenson, “Die Temperatur-und Feuchtigkeitsverhältnisse in den unteren Luftschichten bei der Taubildung,” Met. Zeit. xi. (1876), p. 65; H. E. Hamberg, “Température et humidité de l'air à différentes hauteurs à Upsal,” Soc. R. des sciences d’Upsal (1876); review in Met. Zeit. xii. (1877), p. 105.

For Dew Ponds, see Stephen Hales, Statical Essays, vol. i., experiment xix., pp. 52-57 (2nd ed., London, 1731); Gilbert White, Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, letter xxix. (London, 1789); Dr C. Wells, An Essay on Dew (London, 1818, 1821 and 1866); Rev. J. C. Clutterbuck, “Prize Essay on Water Supply,” Journ. Roy. Agric. Soc., 2nd series, vol. i. pp. 271-287 (1865); Field and Symons, “Evaporation from the Surface of Water,” Brit. Assoc. Rep. (1869), sect., pp. 25, 26; J. Lucas, “Hydrogeology: One of the Developments of Modern Practical Geology,” Trans. Inst. Surveyors, vol. ix. pp. 153-232 (1877); H. P. Slade, “A Short Practical Treatise on Dew Ponds” (London, 1877); Clement Reid, “The Natural History of Isolated Ponds,” Trans. Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society, vol. v. pp. 272-286 (1892); Professor G. S. Brady, On the Nature and Origin of Freshwater Faunas (1899); Professor L. C. Miall, “Dew Ponds,” Reports of the British Association (Bradford Meeting, 1900), pp. 579-585; A. J. and G. Hubbard, “Neolithic Dewponds and Cattle-Ways” (London, 1904, 1907).  (W. N. S.)