Earth, Climate & Environment

Weather Systems

In both hemispheres, the speed of the west wind increases with height up to the top of the troposphere. The core of most rapid winds at the top of the troposphere forms a wavy river of air called the jet stream. Near the ground, where the winds are slowed by friction, the air blows at an acute angle toward areas of low pressure, forming great gyres called cyclones and anticyclones. In the northern hemisphere, the Coriolis force causes air in low-pressure areas to spiral counterclockwise and inward, forming a cyclone, whereas air in high-pressure areas spirals clockwise and outward, forming an anticyclone. In the southern hemisphere, cyclones turn clockwise and anticyclones, counterclockwise.

The air spreading from anticyclones is replaced by sinking air from above. As a result, skies in anticyclones are often fair, and large regions of air called air masses form; these have reasonably uniform temperature and humidity. In cyclones, on the other hand, as air converges to the center, it rises to form extensive clouds and precipitation.

During summer and fall, tropical cyclones, called hurricanes or typhoons, form over warm waters of the oceans in bands parallel to the equator, between about latitude 5° and latitude 30° north and south. Wind speed in hurricanes increases as the air spirals inward. The air either rises in a series of rain bands before reaching the center or proceeds inward and then turns sharply upward in a doughnut-shaped region called the eye wall, where the most intense winds and rain occur. The eye wall surrounds the core, or eye, of the hurricane, which is marked by partly clear skies and gentle winds.

In the middle and high latitudes, polar and tropical air masses are brought together in low-pressure areas called extratropical cyclones, forming narrow zones of sharply changing temperature called fronts. Intense extratropical cyclones can produce blizzard conditions in their northern reaches while at the same time producing warm weather with possible severe thunderstorms and tornadoes in their southern reaches.

Thunderstorms are small, intense convective storms that are produced by buoyant, rapidly rising air. As thunderstorms mature, strong downdrafts of rain- or hail-filled cool air plunge toward the ground, bringing intense showers. However, because thunderstorms are only about 16 km (about 10 mi) wide, they pass over quickly, usually lasting less than an hour. Severe thunderstorms sometimes produce large hail. They may also rotate slowly and spout rapidly rotating tornadoes from their bases.

Most convective weather systems are gentler than thunderstorms. Often, organized circulation cells develop, in which cooler and denser air from the surroundings sinks and blows along the ground to replace the rising heated air. Circulation cells occur on many different scales. On a local scale, along the seashore during sunny spring and summer days, air over the land grows hot while air over the sea remains cool. As the heated air rises, the cooler and denser air from the sea rushes in. This movement of air is popularly called a sea breeze. At night, when the air over the land grows cooler than the air over the sea, the wind reverses and is known as a land breeze.

On a global scale, hot, humid air near the equator rises and is replaced by denser air that sinks in the subtropics and blows back to the equator along the ground. The winds that blow toward the equator are called the trade winds. The trade winds are among the most steady, reliable winds on the earth. They approach the equator obliquely from the northeast and southeast because of the Coriolis force.