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FOG, the name given to any distribution of solid or liquid particles in the surface layers of the atmosphere which renders surrounding objects notably indistinct or altogether invisible according to their distance. In its more intense forms it hinders and delays travellers of all kinds, by sea or land, by railway, road or river, or by the mountain path. It is sometimes so thick as to paralyse traffic altogether. According to the New English Dictionary the word "appears to be" a back formation from the adjective "foggy," a derivative of "fog" used with its old meaning of aftermath or coarse grass, or, in the north of Britain, of "moss." Such a formation would be reasonable, because wreaths of fog in the atmospheric sense are specially characteristic of meadows and marshes where fog, in the more ancient sense, grows.

Two other words, mist and haze, are also in common use with reference to the deterioration of transparency of the surface layers of the atmosphere caused by solid or liquid particles, and in ordinary literature the three words are used almost according to the fancy of the writer. It seems possible to draw a distinction between mist and haze that would be fairly well supported by usage. Mist may be defined as a cloud of water particles at the surface of land or sea, and would only occur when the air is nearly or actually saturated, that is, when there is little or no difference between the readings of the dry and wet bulbs; the word haze, on the other hand, may be reserved for the obscuration of the surface layers of the atmosphere when the air is dry.

It would not be difficult to quote instances in which even this distinction is disregarded in practice. Indeed, the telegraphic code of the British Meteorological Office uses the same figure for mist and haze, and formerly the Beaufort weather notation had no separate letter for haze (now indicated by z), though it distinguished between f, fog, and m, mist. It is possible, however, that these practices may arise, not from confusion of idea, but from economy of symbols, when the meaning can be made out from a knowledge of the associated observations.

As regards the distinction between mist and fog, careful consideration of a number of examples leads to the conclusion that the word "fog" is used to indicate not so much the origin or meteorological nature of the obscurity as its effect upon traffic and travellers whether on land or sea. It is, generally speaking, "in a fog" that a traveller loses himself, and indeed the phrase has become proverbial in that sense. A "fog-bell" or "fog-horn" is sounded when the atmosphere is so thick that the aid of sound is required for navigation. A vessel is "fog-logged" or "fog-bound" when it is stopped or detained on account of thick atmosphere. A "fog-signal" is employed on railways when the ordinary signals are obliterated within working distances. A "fog-bow" is the accompaniment of conditions when a mountain traveller is apt to lose his way.

These words are used quite irrespective of the nature of the cloud which interferes with effective vision and necessitates the special provision; the word "mist" is seldom used in similar connexion. We may thus define a fog as a surface cloud sufficiently thick to cause hindrance to traffic. It will be a thick mist if the cloud consists of water particles, a thick haze if it consists of smoke or dust particles which would be persistent even in a dry atmosphere.

It is probable that sailors would be inclined to restrict the use of the word to the surface clouds met with in comparatively calm weather, and that the obscurity of the atmosphere when it is blowing hard and perhaps raining hard as well should be indicated by the terms "thick weather" or "very thick weather" and not by "fog"; but the term "fog" would be quite correctly used on such occasions from the point of view of cautious navigation. If cloud, drizzling rain, or heavy rain cause such obscurity that passing ships are not visible within working distances the sounding of a fog-horn becomes a duty.

The number of occasions upon which fog and mist may be noted as occurring with winds of different strengths may be exemplified by the following results of thirty years for St Mary's, Scilly Isles, where the observations have always been made by men of nautical experience.

Wind Force. 0 & 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8-12 All
Number of occasions of fog per 1000 observations 8 7 9 14 6 3 <1 <1 47
Number of occasions of mist per 1000 observations 5 6 11 22 20 12 6 2 84

The use of the word "fog" in the connexion "high fog," to describe the almost total darkness in the daytime occasionally noted in London and other large cities due to the persistent opaque cloud in the upper air without serious obscuration of the surface layers, is convenient but incorrect.

Regarding "fog" as a word used to indicate the state of the atmosphere as regards transparency considered with reference to its effect upon traffic, a scale of fog intensity has been introduced for use on land or at sea, whereby the intensity of obscurity is indicated by the numbers 1 to 5 in the table following. At sea or in the country a fog, as a rule, is white and consists of a cloud of minute water globules, of no great vertical thickness, which disperses the sunlight by repeated reflection but is fully translucent. In dust-storms and sand-storms dark or coloured fog clouds are produced such as those which are met with in the Harmattan winds off the west coast of Africa. In large towns the fog cloud is darkened and intensified by smoke, and in some cases may be regarded as due entirely to the smoke.

Description of Effects.

Name. No. On Land. On Sea. On River.
Slight Fog or Mist 1 Objects indistinct, but
traffic by rail or road
unimpeded Horizon invisible, but
lights and landmarks
visible at working
distances Objects indistinct, but
navigation unimpeded
Moderate Fog 2
3 Traffic by rail requires
additional caution
Traffic by rail or road
impeded Lights, passing vessels
and landmarks generally
indistinct under
a mile. Fog signals
are sounded Navigation impeded,
additional caution
Thick Fog 4
5 Traffic by rail or road
Traffic by rail or road
totally disorganized Ships' lights and vessels
invisible at  mile or
less Navigation suspended

The physical processes which produce fogs of water particles are complicated and difficult to unravel. We have to account for the formation and maintenance of a cloud at the earth's surface; and the process of cloud-formation which is probably most usual in nature, namely, the cooling of air by rarefaction due to the reduction of pressure on ascent, cannot be invoked, except in the case of the fogs forming the cloud-caps of hills, which are perhaps not fairly included. We have to fall back upon the only other process hitherto recognized as causing cloudy condensation in the atmosphere, that is to say, the mixing of masses of mist air of different temperatures. The mixing is brought about by the slow motion of air masses, and this slow motion is probably essential to the phenomenon.

Table I. - Air travelling from Northern Africa to Northern Russia, round by the Azores.

Successive Temperatures of sea 68° 68° 67° 59° 54° F.
Successive Temperatures of air 68° 70° 67° 60° 56° F.
Successive States of the atmosphere clear clear clear shower mist

Table II. - Air travelling from N.W. Africa to Scotland.

Successive Temperatures of sea 67° 63° 54° F.
Successive Temperatures of air 66° 64° 53° F.
Successive State of atmosphere fair shower mist with shower

Over the sea fog is most frequently due to the cooling of a surface layer of warm air by the underlying cold water. The amount of motion of the air must be sufficient to prevent the condensation taking place at the sea surface without showing itself as a cloud. In a research on the Life History of Surface Air Currents the changes incidental to the movement of the air over the north Atlantic Ocean were traced with great care, and the above examples (Tables I, II) taken from page 72 of the work referred to are typical of the formation of sea fog by the cooling of a relatively warm current passing over cold water.

In conformity with this suggestion we find that fog is most liable to occur over the open ocean in those regions where, as off the Newfoundland banks, cold-water currents underlie warm air, and that it is most frequent at the season of the year when the air temperature is increasing faster than the water temperature. But it is difficult to bring this hypothesis always to bear upon actual practice, because the fog is representative of a temperature difference which has ceased to exist. One cannot therefore observe under ordinary circumstances both the temperature difference and the fog. Doubtless one requires not only the initial temperature difference but also the slow drift of air which favours cooling of the lower layers without too much mixing and consequently a layer of fog close to the surface. Such a fog, the characteristic sea fog, may be called a cold surface fog. From the conditions of its formation it is likely to be less dense at the mast-head than it is on deck.

One would expect that a cold-air current passing over a warm sea surface would give rise to an ascending current of warmed air and hence cause cumulus cloud and possibly thunder showers rather than surface fog, but one cannot resist the conclusion that sea fog is sometimes formed by slow transference of cold air over relatively warm water, giving rise to what may be called a "steaming-pot" fog. In such a case the actual surface layer in contact with the warm water would be clear, and the fog would be thicker aloft where the mixing of cold air and water vapour is more complete. Such fogs are, however, probably rare in comparison with the cold-water fogs. If the existence of a cold current over warm water were a sufficient cause of fog, as a current of warm air over cold water appears to be, the geographical distribution of notable fog would be much more widespread than it actually is, and the seasonal distribution of fog would also be other than it is.

The formation of fog over land seems to be an even more complicated process than over the sea. Certainly in some cases mistiness amounting to fog arises from the replacement of cold surface air which has chilled the earth and the objects thereon by a warm current. But this process can hardly give rise to detached masses or banks of fog. The ordinary land or valley fog of the autumn evening or winter morning is due to the combination of three causes, first the cooling of the surface layer of air at or after sunset by the radiation of the earth, or more particularly of blades of grass, secondly the slow downward flow (in the absence of wind) of the air thus cooled towards lower levels following roughly the course of the natural water drainage of the land, and thirdly the supply of moisture by evaporation from warm moist soil or from the relatively warm water surface of river or lake. In this way steaming-pot fog gradually forms and is carried downward by the natural though slow descent of the cooled air. It thus forms in wreaths and banks in the lowest parts, until perhaps the whole valley becomes filled with a cloud of mist or fog. A case of this kind in the Lake District is minutely described by J.B. Cohen (Q.J. Roy. Met. Soc. vol. 30, p. 211, 1904).

It will be noticed that upon this hypothesis the circumstances favourable for fog formation are (1) a site near the bottom level of the drainage area, (2) cold surface air and no wind, (3) an evening or night of vigorous radiation, (4) warm soil, and (5) abundant moisture in the surface-soil. These conditions define with reasonable accuracy the circumstances in which fog is actually observed.

The persistence of these fog wreaths is always remarkable when one considers that the particles of a fog cloud, however small they may be, must be continually sinking through the air which holds them, and that unless some upward motion of the air keeps at least a balance against this downward fall, the particles of the cloud must reach the earth or water and to that extent the cloud must disappear. In sheltered valleys it is easy to suppose that the constant downward drainage of fresh and colder fog-laden material at the surface supplies to the layers displaced from the bottom the necessary upward motion, and the result of the gradual falling of drops is only that the surface cloud gets thicker; but there are occasions when the extent and persistence of land fog seems too great to be accounted for by persistent radiation cooling. For example, in the week before Christmas of 1904 the whole of England south of the Humber was covered with fog for several days. It is of course possible that so much fog-laden air was poured down from the sides of mountains and hills that did project above the surface of the fog, as to keep the lower reaches supplied for the whole time, but without more particulars such a statement seems almost incredible. Moreover, the drifting of fog banks over the sea seems capricious and unrelated to any known circumstances of fog-formation, so that one is tempted to invoke the aid of electrification of the particles or some other abnormal condition to account for the persistence of fog. The observations at Kew observatory show that the electrical potential is abnormally high during fog, but whether that is the cause or the result of the presence of the water particles, we are not yet in a position to say. It must be remembered that a fog cloud ought to be regarded as being, generally speaking, in process of formation by mixing. Observations upon clouds formed experimentally in globes tend to show that if a mass of fog-bearing air could be enclosed and kept still for only a short while the fog would settle and leave the air clear. The apparently capricious behaviour of fog banks may be due to the fact that mixing is still going on in the persistent ones, but is completed in the disappearing ones.

One remarkable characteristic of a persistent fog is the coldness of the foggy air at the surface in spite of the heat of the sun's rays falling upon the upper surface of the fog. A remarkable example may be quoted from the case of London, which was under fog all day on 28th January 1909. The maximum temperature only reached 31° F., whereas at Warlingham in Surrey from which the fog lifted it was as high as 46° F.

A priori we might suppose that the formation of fog would arrest cooling by radiation, and that fog would thus act as a protection of plants against frost. The condensation of water evaporated from wet ground, which affords the material for making fog, does apparently act as a protection, and heavy watering is sometimes used to protect plants from frost, but the same cannot be said of fog itself - cooling appears to go on in spite of the formation of fog.

A third process of fog-formation, namely, the descent of a cloud from above in the form of light drizzling rain, hardly calls for remark. In so far as it is subject to rules, they are the rules of clouds and rain and are therefore independent of surface conditions.

These various causes of fog-formation maybe considered with advantage in relation to the geographical distribution of fog. Statistics on this subject are not very satisfactory on account of the uncertainty of the distinction between fog and mist, but a good deal may be learned from the distribution of fog over the north Atlantic Ocean and its various coasts as shown in the Monthly Meteorological Charts of the north Atlantic issued by the Meteorological Office, and the Pilot charts of the North Atlantic of the United States Hydrographic Office. Coast fog, which is probably of the same nature as land fog, is most frequent in the winter months, whereas sea fog and ocean fog is most extensive and frequent in the spring and summer. By June the fog area has extended from the Great Banks over the ocean to the British Isles, in July it is most intense, and by August it has notably diminished, while in November, which is proverbially a foggy month on land, there is hardly any fog shown over the ocean.

The various meteorological aspects of fog and its incidence in London were the subject of reports to the Meteorological Council by Captain A. Carpenter and Mr R.G.K. Lempfert, based upon special observations made in the winters of 1901-1902 and 1902-1903 in order to examine the possibility of more precise forecasts of fog.

The study of the properties and behaviour of fog is especially important for large towns in consequence of the economic and hygienic results which follow the incidence of dense fogs. The fogs of London in particular have long been a subject of inquiry. It is difficult to get trustworthy statistics on the subject in consequence of the vagueness of the practice as regards the classification of fog. For large towns there is great advantage in using a fog scale such as that given above, in which one deals only with the practical range of vision irrespective of the meteorological cause.

Accepting the classification which distinguishes between fog and haze or mist, but not between the two latter terms, as equivalent to specifying fog when the thickness amounts to the figure 2 or more on the fog scale, we are enabled to compare the frequency of fog in London by the comparison of the results at the London observing stations. The comparison was made by Mr Brodie in a paper read before the Royal Meteorological Society (Quarterly Journal, vol. 31, p. 15), and it appears therefrom that in recent years there has been a notable diminution of fog frequency, as indicated in the following table of the total number of days of fog in the years from 1871: -

1871. 1872. 1873. 1874. 1875. 1876. 1877. 1878. 1879. 1880. 1881. 1882. 1883. 1884. 1885. 1886. 1887. 1888. 1889.
42 35 75 53 49 40 46 63 69 74 59 69 61 53 69 86 83 62 75

1890. 1891. 1892. 1893. 1894. 1895. 1896. 1897. 1898. 1899. 1900. 1901. 1902. 1903. 1904. 1905. 1906. 1907. 1908.
65 69 68 31 51 48 43 48 47 56 13 45 42 26 44 19 16 37 19

But from any statistics of the frequency occurrence of fog it must not be understood that the atmosphere of London is approaching that of the surrounding districts as regards transparency. Judged by the autographic records it is still almost opaque to sunshine strong enough to burn the card of the recorder during the winter months.

The bibliography of fog is very extensive. The titles referring to fog, mist and haze in the Bibliography of Meteorology (part ii.) of the U.S. Signal Office, published in 1889, number 306. Among more recent authors on the subject, besides those referred to in the text, may be mentioned: - Köppen, "Bodennebel," Met. Zeit. (1885); Trabert, Met. Zeit. (1901), p. 522; Elias in Ergebnisse des aëronautischen Observatoriums bei Berlin, ii. (Berlin, 1904); Scott, Q.J.R. Met. Soc. xix. p. 229; A.G. McAdie, "Fog Studies," Amer. Inv. ix. (Washington, D.C., 1902), p. 209; Buchan, "Fogs on the Coasts of Scotland," Journ. Scot. Met. Soc. xii. p. 3.

(W. N. S.)

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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