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High-Resolution Thunderstorm Modeling  

Leigh Orf

Since the dawn of the digital computing age in the mid-20th century, computers have been used as virtual laboratories for the study of atmospheric phenomena. The first simulations of thunderstorms captured only their gross features, yet required the most advanced computing hardware of the time. The following decades saw exponential growth in computational power that was, and continues to be, exploited by scientists seeking to answer fundamental questions about the internal workings of thunderstorms, the most devastating of which cause substantial loss of life and property throughout the world every year. By the mid-1970s, the most powerful computers available to scientists contained, for the first time, enough memory and computing power to represent the atmosphere containing a thunderstorm in three dimensions. Prior to this time, thunderstorms were represented primarily in two dimensions, which implicitly assumed an infinitely long cloud in the missing dimension. These earliest state-of-the-art, fully three-dimensional simulations revealed fundamental properties of thunderstorms, such as the structure of updrafts and downdrafts and the evolution of precipitation, while still only roughly approximating the flow of an actual storm due computing limitations. In the decades that followed these pioneering three-dimensional thunderstorm simulations, new modeling approaches were developed that included more accurate ways of representing winds, temperature, pressure, friction, and the complex microphysical processes involving solid, liquid, and gaseous forms of water within the storm. Further, these models also were able to be run at a resolution higher than that of previous studies due to the steady growth of available computational resources described by Moore’s law, which observed that computing power doubled roughly every two years. The resolution of thunderstorm models was able to be increased to the point where features on the order of a couple hundred meters could be resolved, allowing small but intense features such as downbursts and tornadoes to be simulated within the parent thunderstorm. As model resolution increased further, so did the amount of data produced by the models, which presented a significant challenge to scientists trying to compare their simulated thunderstorms to observed thunderstorms. Visualization and analysis software was developed and refined in tandem with improved modeling and computing hardware, allowing the simulated data to be brought to life and allowing direct comparison to observed storms. In 2019, the highest resolution simulations of violent thunderstorms are able to capture processes such as tornado formation and evolution which are found to include the aggregation of many small, weak vortices with diameters of dozens of meters, features which simply cannot not be simulated at lower resolution.


Polar Lows  

Annick Terpstra and Shun-ichi Watanabe

Polar lows are intense maritime mesoscale cyclones developing in both hemispheres poleward of the main polar front. These rapidly developing severe storms are accompanied by strong winds, heavy precipitation (hail and snow), and rough sea states. Polar lows can have significant socio-economic impact by disrupting human activities in the maritime polar regions, such as tourism, fisheries, transportation, research activities, and exploration of natural resources. Upon landfall, they quickly decay, but their blustery winds and substantial snowfall affect the local communities in coastal regions, resulting in airport-closure, transportation breakdown and increased avalanche risk. Polar lows are primarily a winter phenomenon and tend to develop during excursions of polar air masses, originating from ice-covered areas, over the adjacent open ocean. These so-called cold-air outbreaks are driven by the synoptic scale atmospheric configuration, and polar lows usually develop along air-mass boundaries associated with these cold-air outbreaks. Local orographic features and the sea-ice configuration also play prominent roles in pre-conditioning the environment for polar low development. Proposed dynamical pathways for polar low development include moist baroclinic instability, symmetric convective instability, and frontal instability, but verification of these mechanisms is limited due to sparse observations and insufficient resolution of reanalysis data. Maritime areas with a frequent polar low presence are climatologically important regions for the global ocean circulation, hence local changes in energy exchange between the atmosphere and ocean in these regions potentially impacts the global climate system. Recent research indicates that the enhanced heat and momentum exchange by mesoscale cyclones likely has a pronounced impact on ocean heat transport by triggering deep water formation in the ocean and by modifying horizontal mixing in the atmosphere. Since the beginning of the satellite-era a steady decline of sea-ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere has expanded the ice-free polar regions, and thus the areas for polar low development, yet the number of polar lows is projected to decline under future climate scenarios.


Aerosols and Their Impact on Radiation, Clouds, Precipitation, and Severe Weather Events  

Zhanqing Li, Daniel Rosenfeld, and Jiwen Fan

Aerosols (tiny solid or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere) have been in the forefront of environmental and climate change sciences as the primary atmospheric pollutant and external force affecting Earth’s weather and climate. There are two dominant mechanisms by which aerosols affect weather and climate: aerosol-radiation interactions (ARIs) and aerosol-cloud interactions (ACIs). ARIs arise from aerosol scattering and absorption, which alter the radiation budgets of the atmosphere and surface, while ACIs are connected to the fact that aerosols serve as cloud condensation nuclei and ice nuclei. Both ARIs and ACIs are coupled with atmospheric dynamics to produce a chain of complex interactions with a large range of meteorological variables that influence both weather and climate. Elaborated here are the impacts of aerosols on the radiation budget, clouds (microphysics, structure, and lifetime), precipitation, and severe weather events (lightning, thunderstorms, hail, and tornadoes). Depending on environmental variables and aerosol properties, the effects can be both positive and negative, posing the largest uncertainties in the external forcing of the climate system. This has considerably hindered the ability to project future climate changes and make accurate numerical weather predictions.