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What is visibility

Estimation of visibility at sea

During the day
At night

Different phenomena that reduce

visibility at sea
Visibility is the transparency of the atmosphere.

Visibility is defined as the maximum distance at

which an object can be clearly seen and
distinguished in normal daylight.

Ability to see an object from a distance depends on

both the nature and size of the object.

Thus the sort of object used in estimating visibility

needs to vary with its distance from the observer.

Usually a straightforward task.

You can use objects at known distances to

estimate visibility- e.g. mountain ranges, far
off buildings, trees, shrubs etc.

For distances of about a kilometre, (about

n. mile), a house or tree may be sufficient.

For distances of 30km (16 n. miles) or more

larger object needed e.g. a large clump of
trees, or a prominent hill.

Judging and reporting visibility at sea is different than at shore


At sea there are usually no objects at known distances and as

such visibility has to be estimated. In weather messages,
visibility is reported by two code numbers between 90 and 99.


Use objects at known distances on deck

In the open sea vessels sighted can be used by noting the

radar range when the vessel is first sighted visually and when
it disappears from view.

You can use the horizon, however the caution is that distance
to the horizon is a function of the height of the observer to sea
level. Abnormal refraction may also give a false impression of
Even more difficult to estimate at sea

Figure entered in the meteorological report is the distance which

which can be seen
assuming normal daylight


Key to note is: If there is no change in meteorological conditions, the visibility

just after dark will be the same as that just before dark

The use of illumination provided by the moonlight

Lights on the observer

observers vessel can help to estimate objects at the lowest end
of the visibility scale

Lights from other vessels, in conjunction with radar range measurement,

measurement, can
sometimes be used for estimating medium and higher ranges.

Lights from shore establishments (such as a lighthouse), can also

also be useful in
determining shoreline locations.

The presence of a loom

loom around the vessels navigation lights indicates
deteriorating visibility.
Visibility depends on the number of solid and liquid particles
held in suspension in the air.

Main causes of atmospheric obscurity:

1. Visible moisture in the atmosphere. Cloud, mist, fog,

consisting of water droplets, precipitation, or spray blown up
from the water. **Water vapour is a transparent gas and so
does not affect visibility**

2. Solid particles produced by factories, forest fires, volcanic

eruptions etc.

When visibility has different values in different directions, the

lowest value is always reported
Reduction of Visibility
Visibility can be reduced by liquid or solid particles in
the air. Some of these particles are:

Haze (ie: Dust, Sand, Volcanic Ash (ect)).
Mist or Fog.

Visibility can therefore vary in different directions.

**NB** In the absence of any particles suspended in

the air, visibility through the atmosphere is about
130 nautical miles.
Reduction of Visibility

Spray: is defined as small droplets of water driven by

the wind, from the tops of waves. Spray affects the
visibility when the wind speed is force 9 or greater (ie:
40 knots or greater wind speed)

Smoke: also reduces visibility

Haze: If visibility is reduced by solid particles such as

dust, sand, volcanic ash etc suspended in the air, then
haze is said to exist. Haze can in some cases reduce
visibility to 200metres or less
Reduction of Visibility
Mist or Fog: Mist is said to exist when the visibility is
reduced by water particles, which have condensed on
dust, or minute particles of salt, dust and sand etc,
but are so small that they remain suspended in the air

If the mist becomes dense enough and reduces

visibility by 1km or less, then it is classified as Fog

Mist occurs when the Relative humidity is as low as


Fog generally occurs when the Relative Humidity is

90% or greater

**NB** Mist is always experienced before and after

Types of Fog
Radiation Fog or Land Fog
Advection Fog
Steam Fog or Arctic Sea Smoke
Hill Fog or Orographic Fog

Radiation Fog or Land Fog: called Land Fog because

it forms mainly over land.

Process: During the nights, the land gives off heat

very quickly. On clear nights, the radiation of heat
from the land surface into space is quicker since it is
unobstructed by clouds.

The air in contact with the ground thus gets cooled

Radiation Fog

If a light breeze is blowing, turbulence causes the cold air

from the land surface to be mixed with air a few metres
above the ground and shallow fog called "Ground Fog
forms. If the wind speed is a little stronger we may have
radiation fog forming up to 150m above the ground.

Winds that are too strong will result in too much

turbulence, which will result in the formation of low shallow
clouds of the stratus type forming and not fog. (Note: a
temperature inversion is often associated with the
formation of radiation fog).

Radiation fog forms mainly over the land, but may drift
over rivers, into harbours, across lakes and other coastal
regions. For example, fog on the Thames River, the
Dover straits etc.
Radiation Fog

One of the reasons why radiation fog forms mainly over land
is because of the large diurnal range of air temperature over
the land. Radiation fog reaches its maximum about half an
hour after sunrise because the air temperature is at its
lowest at that time. It generally dissipates after
the sun has been shining for a few hours and the land
surface has warmed up.

Favourable Conditions

Large moisture content in the lower layers of the air

Little or no clouds at nights

Light breeze at or near the surface

Cold wet land surface.


Is also called Sea Fog, because it is mostly found over

the sea. It can however be found over land as well.

Formed when moist wind blows over a relatively cold

surface (land or sea).

When the moist air is cooled below its dew point

temperature, the water vapour condenses into
small droplets of water, on dust or minute particles of
salt, resulting in the formation of advection fog.

The wind causes advection fog to form and also to

spread. If the wind is strong the turbulence causes the
advection fog to form to considerable depth. If the wind
is too strong then we get stratus type clouds forming.
Common Locations:

On the Grand Banks of New Foundland where the

warm, moist Westerlies blowing over the warm Gulf
Stream cross over the cold Labrador Current

Off the east coast of Japan where the warm, moist

Westerlies blowing over the warm Kuro Shio cross
over the cold Oya Shio

The south coast of the UK in winter, whenever

southwesterly winds blow. These winds come from
lower latitudes and blow over the sea and are hence
warm and moist, compared to the cold land surface.

The possible time of occurrence of advection

fog can sometimes be predicted by plotting the
temperature of the sea surface and the dew
point temperature of the air as two separate
curves against ship's time as shown in the
following diagram

In the case illustrated, we observe that the two curves

appear to converge. By extending the two lines as
shown in dotted lines, we notice that the curves would
intersect at about 1400 hours. We can then expect to
experience advection fog at about 1400 hours.
Golden Gate Bridge

Smog: This is radiation fog mixed with

industrial smoke.


Smog is a thick, black, oppressive blanket,

which not only wets all exposed surfaces
but also makes them black due to carbon
particles in the smoke.

Steam Fog or Arctic Sea Smoke:

This type of fog occurs when very cold, dry air passes
over a relatively warm sea surface, the water vapour,
evaporating from the sea surface, is quickly
condensed into water-droplets and it appears as if
vertical streaks of smoke are rising from the sea

Hill Fog or Orographic Fog:

This occurs when a wind comes against a mountain
range and begins to climb over it, it progressively
cools adiabatically. After dew point temperature is
reached, any further cooling causes the moisture to
condense into water droplets forming hill fog or
orographic fog.
Other Types of Condensation Near the Ground:

There are other types of condensation near the ground. These


Hoar Frost
Glazed Frost

Dew: is defined as the condensation of water vapour into water

droplets on exposed surfaces on or near the ground.

Process: On clear nights, the land loses heat into space fairly
By late night or early morning the surface of the land gets very cold
and hence the air in contact with it may get cooled below its dew
point temperature. This results in the formation of dew.
Dew contd:
Dew may form also at other times of the day if a warm
moist wind blows gently over a very cold surface. The
presence of water or ice particles on the surfaces
speeds up the process of the formation of dew.

Hoar Frost:
Defined as ice crystals deposited on exposed surfaces
on or near the ground, when the temperature is much
lower than freezing point. In this case the water
vapour changes into ice without becoming water drops
(deposition). The presence of ice particles on the
surface speeds up the formation of hoar frost.

The difference between frozen dew and hoar frost is

that frozen dew changes from vapour to droplets then
to ice.
Glazed Frost: is a thin, transparent, smooth layer of
ice formed when rain or drizzle falls on a surface whose
temperature is below freezing point. Glazed frost may
also form if a warm moist air blows over a very cold

Rime: is defined as a whitish deposit of ice which is

formed on very cold solid objects such as ships masts,
superstructures etc. by supercooled water droplets in a

Since these fog particles are carried by the wind, rime

forms only on the windward side of objects. Rime is
usually soft, but may freeze later to become hard ice.
Rime should not be confused with hoar frost.


Frequently Asked Questions

1. Define visibility.

2. Explain how it is possible to estimate visibility at

nights on the sea.

3. Discuss any two phenomena which can cause a

reduction in visibility at sea.

4. What are the atmospheric conditions, which are

favourable for the formation of Radiation fog? Why
does Radiation Fog generally form over land?

5. With the aid of clearly labelled diagram, discuss the

formation of Advection fog and the prediction of the
possible time of occurrence of Advection fog.

6. Distinguish between Mist and Fog as well as Rain and

End of Chapter 5