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Explained: What is a Rain Shadow, and Why is it important?

12:08 PM Sep 07, 2023 IST | Ground Report
explained  what is a rain shadow  and why is it important

Ever noticed how some places are super dry while others get lots of rain? It's because of something called a "rain shadow." This happens when big mountains block rain clouds, and it can change the weather, ecosystems, and even how people live in those areas.

A rain shadow is always present on the opposite side just as a shadow is. The leeward side, which is opposite to the windward side, constitutes the rain shadow region.


The wind over a water body, such as the sea or a river, tends to be cooler than the wind over the land. This cooler wind is denser and holds a significant amount of water molecules, so it stays closer to the surface. In contrast, the warmer wind is lighter and rises upwards. Occasionally, the wind that has passed over water bodies carries water molecules in the form of water vapour when it moves over the land.

What is a Rain Shadow

A rain shadow occurs when moist air from an ocean or sea rises and meets a mountain range. As the air goes up, it cools and forms precipitation on the windward side of the mountains. However, when it descends on the leeward side, it warms up and dries out, causing significantly less rainfall and creating arid conditions. The rain shadow calls this dry region.


How Rain Shadows Form

Mountain ranges act as barriers to the flow of air, forming rain shadows when air moves from west to east across them.


When winds blow against a mountain, the mountain forces them to ascend its sloping terrain. As the air hikes up the mountain slope, it undergoes adiabatic expansion and cooling. Dry air typically cools by 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet it rises.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When air encounters a tall mountain, something interesting happens. As it goes up the mountain, it cools down, and if it gets cold enough, it forms clouds and rain. Orographic lift is what this is called. The now-moist air also cools, but at a rate of 3.3 degrees every 1,000 feet.

Now, if the air on the mountain's top is cooler than the air on the other side, it sinks down the mountain's other side. As it descends, it gets warmer and drier, so it doesn't rain much on that side. When it reaches the bottom, it can be much hotter and faster.

This whole process can create strong winds known as chinook or foehn winds. These winds can be very powerful, especially in tall mountain ranges.

Where Do Rain Shadows Occur?

Rain shadows occur in major mountain ranges around the world. One example is the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California and Nevada. On the eastern side, Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on Earth with only two inches of rain per year, exists. But on the western side, you'll find lush areas with giant sequoias, thanks to more rainfall.

Antii Lipponen / Flickr / CC By 2.0

New Zealand's Southern Alps create an incredible rain shadow effect. These tall mountains wring out over 390 inches of rainfall from moisture-laden air coming from the Tasman Sea. Just 70 miles away in Central Otago, annual rainfall can be as low as 15 inches. You can even see this contrast from space, with the west side appearing green and the east side dry and tan.

Rain shadows also exist near the Rocky Mountains, Appalachian Mountains, Andes Mountains in South America, Himalayas in Asia, and other mountain ranges. Famous deserts like the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and Argentina's Patagonia Desert are on the leeward side of mountains, making them dry and arid.

Why is it important

  • Climate and Nature: Rainshadows hugely affect local climates and nature. On the side of mountains where moist air rises and cools, you'll find lush forests and lots of rain. On the other side, called the rain shadow, it's much drier, leading to deserts or semi-arid areas. This strong climate difference shapes the kinds of plants and animals that can live there.
  • Water Supply: Knowing about rain shadows is super important for managing water. Places in the rain shadow usually have less freshwater because they get less rain. This can affect farming, water for towns, and how we handle water overall.
A rain shadow region, rains are increasingly becoming common in Ladakh now. Photo Credit: Flickr
  • Farming: Rain shadows can be tough for farming. The dry conditions can limit what crops can grow well. Farmers in these areas often need to use water carefully and use sustainable farming methods because water is scarce.
  • City Planning: When planning cities in rain shadow areas, we have to think about water. Cities need to make sure they have enough water, especially if it's not raining much. This can affect how cities are built and how land is used.
  • Weather Knowledge: Rain shadows also matter in weather science. Understanding how mountains change rain and temperature helps meteorologists make better weather forecasts for different places.

Why is it called a rain shadow?

The mountain itself casts a "shadow" over one of its sides, therefore protecting it from the wet weather systems that attempt to travel over it; hence, it is called a rain shadow.


Rain shadows occur due to specific weather patterns. When moist winds blow from a waterbody and hit a hill or mountain, they rise and cool down. This cooling causes the moisture in the air to turn into rain on the windward side of the hill.

But once these winds pass over the hill and descend on the other side, they've lost most of their moisture. This region, called the "Leeward" or "Rain shadow" area, becomes dry and warm. The main causes of a rain shadow are differences in the landscape and the cooling of the wind as it rises over the hill.

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