Sunday, January 13, 2008


Atmospheric circulation is the movement of air around the surface of the Earth. It is caused by uneven heating of the Earth's surface and upsets the equilibrium of the atmosphere, creating changes in air movement and atmospheric pressure. Because the Earth has a curved surface that rotates on a tilted axis while orbiting the sun, the equatorial regions of the Earth receive a greater amount of heat from the sun than the Polar Regions. The amount of sun that heats the Earth depends upon the time of day, time of year, and the latitude of the specific region. All of these factors affect the length of time and the angle at which sunlight strikes the surface.

In general circulation theory, areas of low pressure exist over the equatorial regions, and areas of high pressure exist over the Polar Regions due to a difference in temperature. Solar heating causes air to become less dense and rise in equatorial areas. The resulting low pressure allows the high-pressure air at the poles to flow along the planet's surface toward the equator. As the warm air flows toward the poles, it cools, becoming more dense, and sinks back toward the surface. This pattern of air circulation is correct in theory; however, several forces modify the circulation of air, most importantly the rotation of the Earth.

The force created by the rotation of the Earth is known as Coriolis force. This force is not perceptible to us as we walk around because we move so slowly and travel relatively short distances compared to the size and rotation rate of the Earth. However, it does significantly affect bodies that move over great distances, such as an air mass or body of water. The Coriolis force deflects air to the right in the Northern Hemisphere, causing it to follow a curved path instead of a straight line. The amount of deflection differs depending on the latitude.

It is greatest at the poles, and diminishes to zero at the equator. The magnitude of Coriolis force also differs with the speed of the moving bodies the faster the speed, the greater the deviation. In the Northern Hemisphere, the rotation of the Earth deflects moving air to the right and changes the general circulation pattern of the air.

The speed of the Earth's rotation causes the general flow to break up into three distinct cells in each hemisphere. In the Northern Hemisphere, the warm air at the equator rises upward from the surface, travels northward, and is deflected eastward by the rotation of the Earth. By the time it has traveled one-third of the distance from the equator to the North Pole, it is no longer moving northward, but eastward.

This air-cools and sinks in a belt-like area at about 30° latitude, creating an area of high pressure as it sinks toward the surface. Then it flows southward along the surface back toward the equator. Coriolis force bends the flow to the right, thus creating the northeasterly trade winds that prevail from 30° latitude to the equator. Similar forces create circulation cells that encircle the Earth between 30° and 60° latitude, and between 60° and the poles. This circulation pattern results in the prevailing westerly winds in the conterminous United States.

Circulation patterns are further complicated by seasonal changes, differences between the surfaces of continents and oceans, and other factors.

Frictional forces caused by the topography of the Earth's surface modify the movement of the air in the atmosphere. Within 2,000 feet of the ground, the friction between the surface and the atmosphere slows the moving air. The wind is diverted from its path because the frictional force reduces the Coriolis force.

This is why the wind direction at the surface varies somewhat from the wind direction just a few thousand feet above the Earth.


Air flows from areas of high pressure into those of low pressure because air always seeks out lower pressure.

In the Northern Hemisphere, this flow of air from areas of high to low pressure is deflected to the right; producing a clockwise circulation around an area of high pressure. This is also known as anti-cyclonic circulation. The opposite is true of low-pressure areas; the air flows toward a low and is deflected to create a counter-clockwise or cyclonic circulation.

High-pressure systems are generally areas of dry, stable, descending air. Good weather is typically associated with high-pressure systems for this reason.

Conversely, air flows into a low-pressure area to replace rising air. This air tends to be unstable, and usually brings increasing cloudiness and precipitation.

Thus, bad weather is commonly associated with areas of low pressure.

A good understanding of high- and low-pressure wind patterns can be of great help when planning a flight, because a pilot can take advantage of beneficial tailwinds. When planning a flight from west to east, favorable winds would be encountered along the northern side of a high-pressure system or the southern side of a low-pressure system. On the return flight, the most favorable winds would be along the southern side of the same high-pressure system or the northern side of a low-pressure system. An added advantage is a better understanding of what type of weather to expect in a given area along a route of flight based on the prevailing areas of highs and lows.

The theory of circulation and wind patterns is accurate for large-scale atmospheric circulation; however, it does not take into account changes to the circulation on a local scale. Local conditions, geological features, and other anomalies can change the wind direction and speed close to the Earth's surface.


Different surfaces radiate heat in varying amounts. Plowed ground, rocks, sand, and barren land give off a large amount of heat; water, trees, and other areas of vegetation tend to absorb and retain heat. The resulting uneven heating of the air creates small areas of local circulation called convective currents.

Convective currents cause the bumpy, turbulent air sometimes experienced when flying at lower altitudes during warmer weather. On a low altitude flight over varying surfaces, updrafts are likely to occur over pavement or barren places, and downdrafts often occur over water or expansive areas of vegetation like a group of trees. Typically, these turbulent conditions can be avoided by flying at higher altitudes, even above cumulus cloud layers.

Convective currents are particularly noticeable in areas with a landmass directly adjacent to a large body of water, such as an ocean, large lake, or other appreciable area of water. During the day, land heats faster than water, so the air over the land becomes warmer and less dense. It rises and is replaced by cooler, denser air flowing in from over the water. This causes an onshore wind, called a sea breeze. Conversely, at night land cools faster than water, as does the corresponding air.

In this case, the warmer air over the water rises and is replaced by the cooler, denser air from the land, creating an offshore wind called a land breeze. This reverses the local wind circulation pattern. Convective currents can occur anywhere there is an uneven heating of the Earth's surface.

Convection currents close to the ground can affect a pilot's ability to control the aircraft. On final approach, for example, the rising air from terrain devoid of vegetation sometimes produces a ballooning effect that can cause a pilot to overshoot the intended landing spot. On the other hand, an approach over a large body of water or an area of thick vegetation tends to create a sinking effect that can cause an unwary pilot to land short of the intended landing spot.


Another atmospheric hazard exists that can create problems for pilots. Obstructions on the ground affect the flow of wind and can be an unseen danger. Ground topography and large buildings can break up the flow of the wind and create wind gusts that change rapidly in direction and speed. These obstructions range from man-made structures like hangars to large natural obstructions, such as mountains, bluffs, or canyons. It is especially important to be vigilant when flying in or out of airports those have large buildings or natural obstructions located near the runway.

The intensity of the turbulence associated with ground obstructions depends on the size of the obstacle and the primary velocity of the wind. This can affect the takeoff and landing performance of any aircraft and can present a very serious hazard. During the landing phase of flight, an aircraft may drop in due to the turbulent air and be too low to clear obstacles during the approach.

This same condition is even more noticeable when flying in mountainous regions. While the wind flows smoothly up the windward side of the mountain and the upward currents help to carry an aircraft over the peak of the mountain, the wind on the leeward side does not act in a similar manner. As the air flows down the leeward side of the mountain, the air follows the contour of the terrain and is increasingly turbulent. This tends to push an aircraft into the side of a mountain. The stronger the wind, the greater the downward pressure and turbulence become.

Due to the effect terrain has on the wind in valleys or canyons, downdrafts can be severe. Thus, a prudent pilot is well advised to seek out a mountain qualified flight instructor and get a mountain checkout before conducting a flight in or near mountainous terrain.


Wind shear is a sudden, drastic change in wind speed and/or direction over a very small area. Wind shear can subject an aircraft to violent updrafts and downdrafts as well as abrupt changes to the horizontal movement of the aircraft. While wind shear can occur at any altitude, low-level wind shear is especially hazardous due to the proximity of an aircraft to the ground.

Directional wind changes of 180° and speed changes of 50 knots or more are associated with low-level wind shear. Low-level wind shear is commonly associated with passing frontal systems, thunderstorms, and temperature inversions with strong upper level winds (greater than 25 knots).

Wind shear is dangerous to an aircraft for several reasons. The rapid changes in wind direction and velocity changes the wind's relation to the aircraft disrupting the normal flight attitude and performance of the aircraft. During a wind shear situation, the effects can be subtle or very dramatic depending on wind speed and direction of change. For example, a tailwind that quickly changes to a headwind will cause an increase in airspeed and performance. Conversely, when a headwind changes to a tailwind, the airspeed will rapidly decrease and there will be a corresponding decrease in performance. In either case, a pilot must be prepared to react immediately to the changes to maintain control of the aircraft.

In general, the most severe type of low-level wind shear is associated with convective precipitation or rain from thunderstorms. One critical type of shear associated with convective precipitation is known as a microburst. A typical microburst occurs in a space of less than 1 mile horizontally and within 1,000 feet vertically. The life span of a microburst is about 15 minutes during which it can produce downdrafts of up to 6,000 feet per minute. It can also produce a hazardous wind direction change of 45 knots or more, in a matter of seconds. When encountered close to the ground, these excessive downdrafts and rapid changes in wind direction can produce a situation in which it is difficult to control the aircraft. During an inadvertent takeoff into a microburst, the plane first experiences a performance-increasing headwind (#1), followed by performance-decreasing downdrafts (#2). Then the wind rapidly shears to a tailwind (#3), and can result in terrain impact or flight dangerously close to the ground (#4).

Microbursts are often difficult to detect because they occur in a relatively confined area. In an effort to warn pilots of low-level wind shear, alert systems have been installed at several airports around the country. A series of anemometers, placed around the airport, form a net to detect changes in wind speeds. When wind speeds differ by more than 15 knots, a warning for wind shear is given to pilots. This system is known as the low-level wind shear alert system, or LLWAS.

It is important to remember that wind shear can affect any flight and any pilot at any altitude. While wind shear may be reported, it often remains undetected and is a silent danger to aviation. Always be alert to the possibility of wind shear, especially when flying in and around thunderstorms and frontal systems.


Surface weather maps provide information about fronts, areas of high and low pressure, and surface winds and pressures for each station. This type of weather map allows pilots to see the locations of fronts and pressure systems, but more importantly, it depicts the wind and pressure at the surface for each location.

Wind conditions are reported by an arrow attached to the station location circle. The station circle represents the head of the arrow, with the arrow pointing in the direction from which the wind is blowing. Winds are described by the direction from which they blow, thus a northwest wind means that the wind is blowing from the northwest toward the southeast. The speed of the wind is depicted by barbs or pennants placed on the wind line. Each barb represents a speed of 10 knots, while half a barb is equal to 5 knots and a pennant is equal to 50 knots.

The pressure for each station is recorded on the weather chart and is shown in millibars. Isobars are lines drawn on the chart to depict areas of equal pressure. These lines result in a pattern that reveals the pressure gradient or change in pressure over distance. Isobars are similar to contour lines on a topographic map that indicate terrain altitudes and slope steepness. For example, isobars that are closely spaced indicate a steep wind gradient and strong winds prevail. Shallow gradients, on the other hand, are represented by isobars that are spaced far apart, and are indicative of light winds. Isobars help identify low- and high-pressure systems as well as the location of ridges, troughs, and cols. A high is an area of high pressure surrounded by lower pressure; a low is an area of low pressure surrounded by higher pressure. A ridge is an elongated area of high pressure, and a trough is an elongated area of low pressure. A Col is the intersection between a ridge and a trough, or an area of neutrality between two highs or two lows.

Isobars furnish valuable information about winds in the first few thousand feet above the surface. Close to the ground, wind direction is modified by the surface and wind speed decreases due to friction with the surface. At levels 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the surface, however, the speed is greater and the direction becomes more parallel to the isobars. Therefore, the surface winds are shown on the weather map as well as the winds at a slightly higher altitude.

Generally, the wind 2,000 feet above the ground will be 20° to 40° to the right of surface winds, and the wind speed will be greater. The change of wind direction is greatest over rough terrain and least over flat surfaces, such as open water. In the absence of winds aloft information, this rule of thumb allows for a rough estimate of the wind conditions a few thousand feet above the surface.

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