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As rising air cools, water vapour condenses (,Jut,
forming "lauds !;arth'5 atmosphere is heated unequally at the poles and equator. Th Isoccurs because of slrn pIe geometry. We live on a sphere orbiting the sun, and sunlight falls from directly overhead on the equator, but at a sharply slanted angle near the north and south poles. The polar regions thus receive less sunlight for a given area than the equator. illis difference Is the fundamental driver of weather on the planet Heat naturally moves from hotter to colder areas, sothe atmospMre and oceans transport heat from the equatorto the poles. A planet without temperature differences would be a planet without weather, where the wind never blows. But on Earth the wind alway~ blows, and sometimes It blows very hard.
INSTABILITY AND PRECIPITATION
Instability occurs when air is less dense than its surroundings. It is greatest when there is COld, ense air d aloft, and Warm, moist air atlow leve!s, since moist alr is less dense than dry air. In an unstable atmosphere, alrthat starts moving upwards w!!1keep moving upwards, As air moves upwards, It expands further, Expansion causescooling, since as the molecules of air move farther apart, the amount of kinetic energy in a given volume falls. At some point it becomes too (001 for water vapou r in the rising alrto remain in the gas phase. When air reaches this point, called the dew-point temperature, water vapour begins condensing out oftne air, forming clouds and precipitation - rain, hail or snow.Thus, two Ingredients are needed to generate precipitation: sufficient water vapour in the air, and a mechanism to lift air so that It cools 'to its dew-pointtemperature, Thethree main ways airgetg lifteD to cause COOling and condensation are: l) solart1eOltingof the ground, ";lusing thermals to develop
2) air masses of different densities
Thesj:leed at which the E,u;th rotates shapes Its wind pattern
WIND BELTS AND THE CORIOLIS EFFECT
If ~<!rthdid not rotate, global wind patterns would be very simple. Hot air would rise at the equ::!tl!ri then spread out horizontally towards the pl!!es once it reached the top oftne atmosphere. At the poles it would cool, sinking as it became more dense, then flow along the surface back to tile eQlJator.Surface winds would thus flow only from north to south In the northern hemisphere, and south to north In the southern h~illisphere. On a rotati og sphere, the surface" and the air above it - moves fastest at the equator and not at all at the pole:>.Thus, i:;lrth's rotation deflects winds to the right in the nort!lern hemisphere, and left in the southern, This def!ectlon is called the Coriolis effect, The rotation of the Earth creates 1I CorioUs~ffe[t 5tFOngenough to produce three interlocking bands of surface winds In each hemisphere: the equatorial trade winds, the mid·latitude westerlies and the polareasterlies (see diagram). If Earth spun faster, there would be more of thase wind belts. Jupiter's very fast rotation rateIts days last just 10 hours - gives that planet many more bands of winds than Earth, At high altitudes, fast wast-to-aast bands of wind called Jet streams develop above the slowermoving surface winds. While this general pattern of wind belts predominates, because we do notlh,e on a uniform sphere but on one with oceans, mountains, forests and deserts, actual wind patterns are f;lf more complicated and variable.
meeting and creating 'fronts=that push air upwards, and 3) air being forced upwards by mountains in its way, While air temperatures fOIl! with
altitude in the lower atmosphere, or
'troposphere, at an altitude of around II kilometres the air suddenly beg!m to warm again, Thls "temperature Inversion" marks the bottom oftl1e stratosphere, It is caused by the heating of air as ozone absorbs ultraviolet light. No clouds form in the stratosphere, since air from the troposphere cannot rise above the inversion. This puts a lid on instablllty. ~ If there Was no inversion, we woUld get S more extreme weather,
The thin layer of gas making up the Earth's amazing atmosphere is prone to moods of spectacular beauty ~ and stunning violence. a understand what makes the weather go wild, we must start by lookilng at the intricate workings of the forces that set the atmosphere in motion and thus drive our planet's weather
TEMPERATURE, PRESSURE AND WINDS
Air is warmed In three main ways: radiation, conduction and convection. The sun radiates photons that are absorbed by air molecules, making the molecules move faster - that is, get warmer.tt has the same effect on the ground, whose molecules then conduct heat energy to the thin layer of air in contact with it. A.5the rnotacules in this parc~1 ofwarm air zing around mom rapidly. its volume Incr~ases. Sineathis makes the air parcel less dense than the surrounding air. It becomes more buoyant and thus rises, Cooler, heavier airflows into the space It has vacated, wherll it in turn becomes heated and rises. continuing the cycle. This vertica I movement of heat is called convection, and the rising parcels of air are known as thermals, in this way, temperature differences cause iiariations in density and pressurathat drtvawlnds both vertically and horizontally as the airflows to try to equ alise the pressure.
"If Earth spun faster, there would be more of these wind belts. as can be seen orijuplter"
2 october 2010
I NewScientlst I iii
TI1E!sE! huge storms,
The unequal haatl ng of the eq uator and po Iss often leads to sto rrns thousands of kilometres across, wli len transport heattowards ths poles. called mid-latitude cyclones, are the familiar low-pressure systems and winter blizzards that give the mid-latitudes much of their
During a tornado In Bridge Creek, Oklahoma, on 3 May 1999, [loppler radar revealed .. wind speed of wher!! dry, stable air has Intruded.
Mid-latitude cyclones form where sharp temperature contrasts exist ~Iong
a frontsepOlrating cold, dry polar airfrom
warm, moist tropical air. Th~s~great storms are primarily powered by ths
lrprevents air rising very high until
later In the day~ when solar heating eventually Instability generates enough for onethermalto burst
per hour about30
metres abbve the sWl2eplng stron!l and badly
ground - the fastest ever recorded. Winds ofthls sirength cause total destruction, timber-frame houses offtheirfoundiltions
release of potential en@rgyascold, dense air moving down and towards the
equator displaces warmer, less dense air moving polewards and upwards. An additional energy source is latent heat. A lot of energy is needed to turn liquid water into vapour, and this energy is released when the vapour condenses. When air is lifted and cooled in astorm, and water vapour condenses, the releasE.'of lat~n"t heat Warms the surrounding atmosphere.
through the cap. The result is a single, large supercell instead ef a number of smaller, spread-out thunderstorms. These conditions are most common in the Midwestern US. The Gulf of Mexico provides ii source of warm, low-density
damaging steel-reinforced concrete structures. Fortunately, in the past decade there have only been three top-end tornadoas designation exceeding322Idlometr@sperhour). earnin!l an E]:.5 Unlike hurricanes, on the Enh'lnced Fujita scale (winds
tornadoes are qulte smell, rangi ng from 75 metres across to a bout .31<1 lomettes, They descend from cumulonimbus (thunderstorm) clouds, which can be over land orwater.Tho.sethatform or molieoverwater are called waterspouts and tend to be much weaker than tornadoes tornadoes instability over land. /!. very particular
moist air at low levels, and when thls air slide s underneath
high-density cold, drY<lirflowlng
southwards from Canada, an el<p!os,ively unstable atm'Osphere often results. Add to this mix a mld-levellntruston 'Ofdry, stable ai r
That makes this al r rt se higher, whl eh
releases yet more latent heat powering the storm. The storm
set of conditions is needed for
Most important is the presence flow of
from the desert regions to the west and a powerful Jet stream aloft creating plenty of wind shear, and dozens or
as a heat engine, converting the heat
energy Into kinetic energy - wind.
and wind shear, A low-altitude
warm, moist air from an ocean area combined with flow of cold, dry polar air high up creates maximum instability, the surface rise r~pidly, (r!!orting powerful If a strong updrafts.
of tornadoes occurred
which means that parcels of air heated near
During the SUper Outbreak 148tornadoE!s
jet stream is present,
with high winds
near the top of the troposphere,
there will be vertical
in an lS-hour period Over 12 states in the US and Ontario, t:anada: .Atleast 300 p~ople died. While the vast majority of the world's tornadoes occur In the US, they do affect other nations too. Bangladesh averages th ree t.ornadoes per year, and many ofthese are
southerly nearttle surface to westerly aloft, there is vertical wind direction shear. These two types of shear make the updraft rotate, creating a rotating thunderstorm, or supercell. Supertells spawn the vast majority of strong (EF·2 and EF-3) and violent (&1=-4 and EF·S) tornadoes. . /!. third Ingredient that is usually needed to is the generate supercell thunderstorms
wind speed shear, If the winds also change from
and Violent. The world's
deadliest tornado was an EF-5th at hit Bangladesh on 26 April19S9, killing more than 1300 people. Thetomadc Super
This Is a region in the middle layers of the atmosphere
Outbreak of 1974 (far left)
aW)S5 the US and
Tornadoes reveal the atmosphere at its most violent, Spawned by thunderstorms, they produce' the fastest winds of any natural
phenomenon. It is fortunate for and that the seriouslydestructive
us that most tornadoes ewesmall, ones are extremely rare
If the sun's heat Is strong enoug h, the u pwa rd-movlng thermals It creates form puffy·topped cumulus clouds. In some cases, 'the ~ops of these cauliflower-shaped clouds may reach the top oUhe troposphere, In tl1e upper parts of these clouds, freezing temperatures create, ice and snow, and collisions .between the frozen partleles separate electric ch~rge. Whentl"le charge builds up to a critical level, a lightning bolt strikes, reuniting the positive and negative charges. The cause of the subsequent thunderclap is still being debated, One recerrtthaory is that it is driven by energy released after N2 and O2 molecules have been split apart - an air explosion, Whatever the reason, the cumulus cloud Is now a cumulonimbus cloud ~a thunderstorm. As well as
ladesh in 1989, killing1300 people"
, s an EF 5 that
most of the planet. thunderstorms also bring a variety of hazards. The world's heaviest rainfall events are invariably caused by thunderstorms; the heavy rainfall of tropical cyclones Is du e to the ,tl"lunderstorms !!mbedded within them. Severe thunderstorms cangen'erate destructive straight-I ine wi nds with speeds up to 240 kilometres per hour and generate hailstones a large as
spawn nature's most violent wi ndstorrn - the: tornado, Hailstones can do serious
damage to people, plants
ii nd planes eve n wh en
TYPHOON OR HURRICANE?
A tropical cyclene starts life as a treptcal depression - ,)0 organised, spinning storm system with wind speeds gf less than 63 kilometres per hour, When the winds grow faster, the system Is gillen" name ilnd classified as a tropical storm. When the wintls teach 119 km/h, a ring of intense thunderstorms called the ;'eyewall" forms around the storm's centre. Within the eyewall is the ·'ey@"ofthestorm,aclear,calmregionofsinkingalr. Once the sustained winds exceed 119 km/h, the storm is classified as a hurricane If itis in t_heJ\tlantic or eastern Pacific, or as a typhoon In the western Pacific. In the Indian Oce"n or in the southern hemIsphere it i~ simply called iii cyclone or tropkal cyclone. There is no meteorological difference between these differently named storms. Very warm water extending to a depth of 50 metres of a tropical or more can help fuel rapid intensification
178 I<mlh or more -the most
fearsome and destructive storm on the planet. Tral:liticnally, hurricanes are raril<ei:l from 1 to 5 on the Safflr-Simpson s~i!le. bil5ed on the maximum sustained wind speed. HowEj,ver. this scale can be misleading. Aweak storm that co E!rsa huge area ofthesl'!:a can generate a l;lrger storm surge than a smallerhut mCfeintense hurricane ratin"!!. with a higher Saffir-Simpson type of
To give a better idea of the storm surge potential, the eXperimental Integrated Kinetic I;nergy scale has been developed. It is a measure of both wind speed and the area over which high winds extencl.
cyclone to "major" hurrtcana status, with wi nds of
Monsoons operate via the same principle as the familiar sum~er afternoon sea breeze, but o~ a grand scale, In summer; the land gets hotter than the sea: that's Each summer, monsoons <lffect every continent excePt Antarctica and ara responsible for !!fe·glvii'ig rains that sustain the lives of billions of people. In India, home to 1.1 billion people, the monsoon provides 80 per centoftheannual raln'ran. Monsoons have their dark side too, though: hundreds of people in Ind la and surrounding nations die each yearln by the floods and landslides triggered because on land, the sun's he"t is concentrated close surface, while at Sea Wind and turbulence mix
warm water at the surfaGe with cooler water lower down; Also, the molecular propertie:o of water mean it takes more energy to raise Its temperature than It does to heatthe soli and rock that make up dry land. As a result, a low-pressure region of riSing alr dellelops ever land areas. Molsture-lad!211 eeesn winds blow towards this region and are drawn upward~ when they reach land. The rising airexpandsano cools, releasing its moisture as some of the heaviest rains on Earth - the monsoon.
heavy rains. The most deadly flooding events usually come from monsoon depressions, also Imown as monsoon
Warm ocean waters provide the power that drives the world's most fearsome storms. Hurricanes can be more than 2000 ldlornetres wide, generate storm surges of over 10 metres and deposit more
than a metre of rain in a day
The wo rd "cyclone" can be used to dascriba any rotating storm systarn.This Includes hurricanes, tornadoes <1m:! the ordinary low-pressure mid-latitudes. Tropical cyclones, though, form only over warm ocean waters of at least 26 ·C, and unlike storm .systems over land, derive their energy e)(clusively 'from latent heat. Hurrlcan~s, systems that develop in the
RECIPE FOR A HURRICANE
typhoons, tropical storms
tlepressloJ1S are all examples of tropical cyclones. Like tornadoes, -tropical cyclones lieed a particular setcf Ingredients In order to form. starting with warm ocean water. In addition, vertical wind shear must be very tow: in other words, the difference in wind speed between the surface and the top of the troposphere must be less than around 10 metres per second, Any faster and th e shear tilts and stretches the core
of a developing tropical cyclone, carrying away Its heat winds
a no moisture,
The strongest winds in
eyewall aFOU th e ce ntre nd
stream or upper-level low-pressure systems most common source of wind shear, The more equator-wa rd position of the 5ubtro pica IJet stream in winter and spring Is the main reason why hurricanes
and typhoons rarely form in the Caribbean Sea OF western Pacific in those seasons, even though ocean tarnparatures are wa rrn enough yea r-round to su pport such storms. Tropical cyclcnes alsn need high moisture through a deep layer of the atmosphere. Cry slrfrorn
the Jet are the
lows, A monsoon depression is similar
to, but I~rger than, depression.
Afrkiil or North America often disrupts a hurricane in
the process of form Ing. Finally, a tropksl cyclone needs something to get it spinning, lnths Atlanticthis is usually provided by
80th are spinning storms
hundreds of kilometres in dlarneter with sustalnnd winds of SO to 55 kllometres per hour, Marly celrn winds at their centre and very heavy rains. Each summer; around seven monsoon depressions form over the two major crossed over Bay of Bengal and track westwa rds aeross lnela, Thlsyear, monsoon depressions
disorganised areas of low pressure called Af'rican easterly W1lVI!l5, which em!!rge from the coast of Africa and move eastwards towards the Caribbean. Hurricanes get more spin from the effect of Earth's rotation. Since the emountofvertiealspln atmosphere ofthe due to the (orl oils forcels ze ro at the
equator and maximum at the poles, troplcal cyclones generally cannot form within about 5 degrees of letltude from the eouator, They then tend to expand
tndla into Pakistan inJuly and August bringing heavy rains and the worst floog i ng ;i Ii I"akist<'tn's ti!siory.
as they move polewsrds. due to the increasing amount
Of vertical spin,
Jeff Masters co-tourded the Weather Underground online weather Information service in 1995whileworklng on his PhD. He flew with the US National
Ocsankand Atmospheric Administration's hurricane hu ntars from 1986 to 1990.
INSTANT EXPERT Tim White ORIGINS 6 November
':Another updraft, much stronger, grabs the aircraft, I regret forgetting to fasten my shoulder harness as I struggle to keep from bashing into the computer console. Seconds later, a huge downdraft blasts us, hurling the loosened gear against walls and floor. Gerry and Lowell are barely in control of the aircraft. Hugo is a category 5 hurricane, and we are in the eyewall at 1500 feetl One strang downdraft could send us plunging into the ocean. We have to rnaka it to the eye, where we can climb to a safer altitude. "We're almost there! Then, disaster. Thick, dark douds suddenly envelop the aircraft. A titanic fist of wind smashes us. I am thrown into the computer console, bounce off, and for one terrifying instant find myself looking down at a precipitous angle at Sean across the aisle from me." I served for four years as a flight meteorologist on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's P-3 hurricane hunter aircraft. During this mission in hurricane Hugo in 1989, we hit the most extreme turbulence any hurricane hunter aircraft has ever survived, with forces of 5.7 g. The wings are only rated to stay on at 6 g. The pilot lost control of the aircraft and one of our engines burst into
flame during tile encounter. Six missions between 1945 and 1974 were lost with all hands. The aircraft used in those days were poorly equipped and wind speed had to be estimated by 'looking atthe degree to which the sea surface had been churned to foam ~ which meant flying beneath th e lowest douds at an altitude ofjust 200 metres. The reason for flying into hurricanes is to measure the strongest winds, which occur in the eyewall - the ring of violent thunderstorms that surrounds the calm eye. Knowing the exact strength of the eyewall winds is crucial for issuing proper warnings. Satellites cannot measure winds in the eyewall directly, as they have a limited ability to see through clouds and rain, That an airplane could safely penetrate the eyewall and survive W!;!5 first demonstrated on 27 July 1943, by ColonelJoseph Duckworth. This dangerous task will likely be taken over by UAVs,with no (rew on board, in 20 or so years from now. However, only crewed aircraft can carry the heavy Doppler radar instruments needed to fully probe the structure of a hurricane, so these aircraft will continue to fly into the less dang.erous parts of hurricanes for a long time to came.
The AMS Weat/ler Book: The Ultimate (Juide to Amedee!':; weCltt7er by Jack Williams (University of Chicago Press) Meteorology Today by Donald Ahrens (Brooks Cole) Extreme Weather by Christopher Burt (W, W, Norton) Divine Wind by Kerry Emanuel (Oxford University Press) Tornado Alley by Howard Bluestein (Oxford University Press) The Rough Guide to (llmore Change by Robert Henson (Rough Guides)
JIM REED/SCIENCE PHOTO UBRARY