Weak Elevated Convective Instability Associated With Dynamic Height Falls

There is always something interesting going on in weather.  What initially may seem run-of-the-mill can become more interesting upon closer inspection.  Sunday featured a migratory baroclinic wave, cutoff from the primary westerlies, passing through the intermountain west and “ejecting” into the central plains during the afternoon.  What was particularly interesting was the interaction of a deep frontal circulation within a region of “dynamic” height falls aloft which supported the release of elevated instability.  The co-location of a mesoscale divergent jet stream aided in the rapidly increasing cloud field and elevated “gusty” virga showers.

The wave in question is quite clear in WV with the mid-level trough axis over Colorado at 12Z Sunday:

The 300 hpa upper air analysis clearly shows the upper wave and jet stream level winds as well as the large amounts of divergence (plotted yellow):

The 500 hpa analysis at 12Z.  Note the lower amplitude of the wave at 500 hpa as compared to 300 hpa (this is important!), suggesting this was largely an upper tropospheric wave.  Also note the large values of cyclonic vorticity near the base of the trough owing largely to horizontal shear (of course curvature vorticity is also present, but it does not play as large a role), simply expressed by :

in the natural coordinate system.

This is typical of low amplitude baroclinic waves owing to the amount of shear.  Why do low amplitude waves propagate at a greater speed than longwave troughs?  The rapid forward propagation of the wave is explained (compared to a longwave trough) by the dominance of cyclonic vorticity advection and subsequent height falls ahead of the shortwave trough.  Planetary vorticity advection on the backside of the wave is minimal due to the short wavelength, therefore height falls on the upstream portion of the wave are much smaller than height falls downstream.

The advection of cyclonic relative vorticity by the geostrophic wind dominates over f in the QG Chi equation regarding shortwave troughs:

And the 12Z GFS, once again, note the high values of cyclonic vorticity near the base of the shortwave:

Note the thermal pattern at 500 mb.  There is little to no cold air advection at 12Z:

Note that, by 18Z, as progged by the GFS, the cold air overspreads much of Colorado with little to no advection.  Why?  “Dynamic” height falls:

A combination of QG Chi and the hypsometric equation can help explain this.  As mentioned earlier, large values of cyclonic vorticity are being advected by the geostrophic wind near the base of the shortwave.  The more cyclonic vorticity and/or the stronger the wind, the greater the height falls.

The winds at 300 hpa are on the order of 70-90 kts:

And 40-60 kts at 500 hpa:

This suggests the geostrophic wind at 300 hpa is advecting more cyclonic vorticity than at 500 hpa due to the strengthened flow aloft (I don’t have the map, but the amount of cyclonic vorticity at 300 hpa is similar to 500 hpa).  Heights are falling faster aloft than they are at lower levels (this makes more sense now…remember the higher amplitude 300 hpa shortwave compared to 500 hpa?  This implies heights must fall at a greater rate aloft than regions below with a forward propagating wave).  As a result, because the atmospheric column is shrinking from some level below 500 hpa to the upper troposphere, temperatures must cool in response, implying forced ascent.

The effects of these dynamic height falls results in cooling of the upper levels and steepened lapse rates, which can be enhanced by diurnal insolation in the lower levels.

By 18Z, note the large convective cloud field which has developed post-front over the Colorado Rockies.  Also note the plume of high cirrus associated with the divergent jet stream (green) with a crudely drawn streamline:

By 20Z, the front has progressed into the plains, but note the still cloud free region in western NE:

The 12Z GFS @ 18Z over western NE shows the influence of dynamic induced height falls in the model Skew-T.  Note the mid-level lapse rates:

BY 21Z, note the steep mid-level lapse rates and the deep cold front (red).  Also note the GFS upper level winds are mainly S-SW.

Air parcels lifted to the top of the frontal circulation will be able to ascend freely somewhere around (after calculating a crude elevated LFC) 500 hpa before reaching the Equilibrium Level near 400 hpa.  Also note the very narrow and shallow zone of CAPE–likely around 50 j/kg or less.  Note the rapid expanse of the cloud shield over western NE along with the small pockets of weak convection from 20z to 23z:

Also note the continued SE flow aloft.  The rapid expanse of the cloud field was likely enhanced by the mesoscale jet circulation.  Also note how cold the cloud temperatures are in western NE:

The 12Z GFS @ 0Z is forecasting winds at 300 mb to be nearly due SSW (180-200 degrees).  Also note the ridge axis upstream.

Air parcels exiting the jet streak would become supergeostrophic and flow to lower heights aloft, in this case towards the NW.  This enhances the ageostrophic wind field/divergence and mesoscale forced ascent.  Remember that, in the case of jet stream circulations, this must be considered in addition to the large scale synoptic vertical motion field.  Jet streaks and their associated circulations are mesoscale and are not in any way related to synoptic scale ascent and the QG equations of vertical motion (which can be shown through a scale analysis).   Note that, in the 0Z analysis, which employs upper air soundings, the flow is indeed S-SE (also indicated in the cloud flow pattern and in satellite derived winds).  In this case, the 12Z model runs were likely underestimating the strength of the jet circulation and associated vertical motion field.  While the impacts were relatively minimal here, in winter, that could result in models significantly underestimating the potential for heavy snow banding (just one of many potential high impact events), for instance.

Also worth noting here is the 18Z 300 hpa wind forecast at the same time (compare this to the 12Z forecast above).  Satellite derived winds ingested by the numerical model data assimilation systems were able to adjust the upper level wind field to the satellite observations.  This is a good example showing “off” hour runs are not worthless and can have operational significance if used intelligently by the forecaster.

A large area of showers formed over the region including heavy convective showers.


Surface observations suggest most of the shower activity over western NE never hit the ground and cloud bases (AGL) remained high at around 10-12000 feet.  The main effect of the showers was to enhance horizontal momentum transport downwards and increase wind gusts along the frontal circulation.  Most surface observations showed peak wind gusts with the arrival of the showers, some in excess of 40 mph, hence the name “gusty” showers.

This case is a good example of the importance of “dynamic” height falls in meteorology, especially in terms of summer convective potential when deep, moist convection is often initiated/and or enhanced by very low amplitude waves/upper level “impulses” due to cap erosion, steepening lapse rates (increased CAPE), and regions of low level mass convergence (surface based and/or elevated).  Also important is the co-location of differing meteorological circulations (e.g. mesoscale jet circulations, frontal circulations, regions of synoptic ascent, etc.), especially during winter storm events.  Being able to diagnose and forecast these regions is of utmost importance, even more so in the short-term forecast and NOWcast.


About jason ahsenmacher

I am a meteorologist, and I like baroclinic instability. View all posts by jason ahsenmacher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: