Clouds contain huge numbers of tiny droplets of moisture. Raindrops are formed when these tiny droplets are enlarged, first by moisture from the surrounding air condensing on them and then by coalescing with other droplets during their descent. Raindrops vary in size from about 0.02 in. (0.5 mm) to as much as 0.33 in. (8 mm) in thunderstorms. From the time they leave the bottom of the cloud, evaporation takes place and, if the cloud is high, the air warm and dry, and the raindrops small, so that they fall slowly, they may evaporate completely before they reach the earth. If they do so, the drops are called virga.
There are thousands of stations throughout the world where rainfall observations and records are made. Included in such records is the fall of snow, reduced to its equivalent in rain. Rainfall is measured, in terms of inches or millimeters of depth, by means of a simple receptacle-and-gauge apparatus or by more complex electrical or weighing devices placed where eddies of air will not interfere with the normal fall of the raindrops. In addition to the daily, monthly, and annual totals, the depth of individual rainfalls and their intensity (amount of rain falling during a specific period of hours or minutes) and other pertinent facts are recorded.
One of the primary elements in climate and a factor of tremendous importance in the distribution of plant and animal life, rainfall varies from less than an inch annually in a desert to more than 400 in. (1,000 cm) where the monsoons strike the Khasi hills in Assam, India, and on the windward slopes of Hawaiian mountains. In the United States the range is from less than 2 in. (5 cm) in Death Valley, Calif., to more than 100 in. (250 cm) on the coast of Washington state; in most of the country the average rainfall is between 15 and 45 in. (38 and 114 cm) annually.
Factors controlling the distribution of rainfall over the earth's surface are the belts of converging-ascending air flow (see doldrums; polar front), air temperature, moisture-bearing winds, ocean currents, distance inland from the coast, and mountain ranges. Ascending air is cooled by expansion, which results in the formation of clouds and the production of rain. Conversely, in the broad belts of descending air (see horse latitudes) are found the great desert regions of the earth, descending air being warmed by compression and consequently absorbing instead of releasing moisture. If the temperature is low, the air has a small moisture capacity and is able to produce little precipitation. When winds blow over the ocean, especially over areas of warm water (where evaporation of moisture into the air is active) toward a given coastal area, that area receives more rainfall than a similar area where the winds blow from the interior toward the oceans. Areas near the sea receive more rain than inland regions, since the winds constantly lose moisture and may be quite dry by the time they reach the interior of a continent.
The windward slopes of mountain ranges generally receive heavy rainfall; the leeward slopes receive almost no rain. The southwest coast of Chile, the west coast of Canada, and the northwest coast of the United States receive much rain because they are struck by the moisture-bearing westerlies from the Pacific and are backed by mountains that force the winds to rise and drop their moisture. The territories immediately east of the regions mentioned are notably dry. See weather.
The need for rain at a particular time and the dangers attendant upon drought brought rain prominently into the religion of most agricultural peoples. Rain-gods and thunder-gods are more prominent in many mythologies than sun-gods, and they have been propitiated in various ways in different cultures. The rain dances of the Native Americans may, however, be said to be generally typical of all in the elaborate symbolic gestures and patterns and in the extensive use of drums and rattles (presumably sympathetic magic by imitation of the sounds of thunder and showering rain). Because the purpose is to make the fields bear crops, the connection of such rites with those of fertility is obvious.
See J. Burton and K. Taylor, The Nature and Science of Rain (1997); J. Williams, The Weather Book (2d ed. 1997).