Hygrometers measure how much water is in the air, called humidity. If it’s raining, it’s 100% humidity. Deserts and arid climates have low humidity and dry skin. Humidity is very hard to measure accurately, but scientists have figured out ways to measure how much moisture is absorbed by measuring the change in temperature (as with a sling psychrometer), pressure, or change in electrical resistance (most common).
The dewpoint is the temperature when moist air hits the water vapor saturation point. If the temperature goes below this point, the water in the air will condense and you have fog. Pilots look for temperature and dewpoint in their weather reports to tell them if the airport is clear, or if it”s going to be ‘socked in’. If the temperature stays above the dewpoint, then the airport will be clear enough to land by sight. However, if the temperature falls below the dewpoint, then they need to land by instruments, and this takes preparation ahead of time.
A sling psychrometer uses two thermometers (image above), side by side. By keeping one thermometer wet and the other dry, you can figure out the humidity using a humidity chart. The psychrometer works because it measures wet-bulb and dry-bulb temperatures by slinging the thermometers around your head. While this sounds like an odd thing to do, there’s a little sock on the bottom end of one of the thermometers which gets dipped in water. When air flows over the wet sock, it measures the evaporation temperature, which is lower than the ambient temperature, measured by the dry thermometer.
Scientists use the difference between these two to figure out the relative humidity. For example, when there’s no difference between the two, it’s raining (which is 100% humidity). But when there’s a 9oC temperature difference between wet and dry bulb, the relative humidity is 44%. If there’s 18oC difference, then it’s only 5% humidity.
You can even make your own by taping two identical thermometers to cardboard, leaving the ends exposed to the air. Wrap a wet piece of cloth or tissue around the end of one and use a fan to blow across both to see the temperature difference!
One of the most precise are chilled mirror dewpoint hygrometers, which uses a chilled mirror to detect condensation on the mirror’s surface. The mirror’s temperature is controlled to match the evaporation and condensation points of the water, and scientists use this temperature to figure out the humidity.
We’re going to make a very simple hygrometer so you get the hand of how humidity can change daily. Be sure to check this instrument right before it rains. This is a good instrument to read once a day and log it in your weather data book.
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