A microburst is a very localized column of sinking air, producing damaging divergent and straight-line winds at the surface that are similar to but distinguishable from tornadoes which generally have convergent damage. There are two types of microbursts: wet microbursts and dry microbursts. They go through three stages in their life cycle: the outburst, downburst, and cushion stages. The scale and suddenness of a microburst makes it a great danger to aircraft due to the low-level wind shear caused by its gust front, with several fatal crashes attributed to the phenomenon over the past several decades.

History of term

The term was defined by severe weather expert Tetsuya Theodore Fujita as affecting an area 4 km (2.5 mi) in diameter or less, distinguishing them as a type of downburst and apart from common wind shear which can encompass greater areas. Dr. Fujita also coined the term macroburst for downbursts larger than 4 km (2.5 mi), a scale of size known as the misoscale.

A distinction can be made between a wet microburst which consists of precipitation and a dry microburst which consists of virga. They generally are formed by precipitation-cooled air rushing to the surface, but they perhaps also could be powered from the high speed winds of the jet stream deflected to the surface in a thunderstorm (see downburst).

Microbursts are recognized as capable of generating wind speeds higher than 75 m/s (168 mph; 270 km/h).

Dry microbursts

When rain falls below cloud base or is mixed with dry air, it begins to evaporate and this evaporation process cools the air. The cool air descends and accelerates as it approaches the ground. When the cool air approaches the ground, it spreads out in all directions and this divergence of the wind is the signature of the microburst. High winds spread out in this type of pattern showing little or no curvature are known as straight-line winds.

Dry microbursts, produced by high based thunderstorms that generate little surface rainfall, occur in environments characterized by a thermodynamic profile exhibiting an inverted-V at thermal and moisture profile, as viewed on a Skew-T log-P thermodynamic diagram. (Wakimoto, 1985) developed a conceptual model (over the High Plains of the United States) of a dry microburst environment that comprised of three important variables: mid-level moisture, a deep and dry adiabatic lapse rate in the sub-cloud layer, and low surface relative humidity.

Wet microbursts

Wet microbursts are downbursts accompanied by significant precipitation at the surface which are warmer than their environment (Wakimoto, 1998). These downbursts rely more on the drag of precipitation for downward acceleration of parcels than negative buoyancy which tend to drive "dry" microbursts. As a result, higher mixing ratios are necessary for these downbursts to form (hence the name "wet" microbursts). Melting of ice, particularly hail, appears to play an important role in downburst formation (Wakimoto and Bringi, 1988), especially in the lowest one kilometer above ground level (Proctor, 1989). These factors, among others, make forecasting wet microbursts a difficult task.

Characteristic Dry Microburst Wet Microburst
Location of Highest Probability within the United States Midwest/West Southeast
Precipitation Little or none Moderate or heavy
Cloud Bases As high as 500 mb Usually below 850 mb
Features below Cloud Base Virga Shafts of strong precipitation reaching the ground
Primary Catalyst Evaporative cooling Downward transport of higher momentum
'''Environment below Cloud Base Deep dry layer/low relative humidity/dry adiabatic lapse rate Shallow dry layer/high relative humidity/moist adiabatic lapse rate
Surface Outflow Pattern Omni-directional Gusts of the direction of the mid-level wind

Development stages of microbursts

The evolution of downbursts is broken down into three stages: the contact stage, the outburst stage and the cushion stage.

Physical processes of dry and wet microbursts

Simple explanation

In the case of a wet microburst, the atmosphere is warm and humid in the lower levels and dry aloft. As a result, when thunderstorms develop, heavy rain is produced but some of the rain evaporates in the drier air aloft. As a result the air aloft is cooled thereby causing it to sink and spread out rapidly as it hits the ground. The result can be both strong damaging winds and heavy rainfall occurring in the same area. Wet downbursts can be identified visually by such features as a shelf cloud, while on radar they sometimes produce bow echoes.

In the case of a dry microburst, the atmosphere is warm but dry in the lower levels and moist aloft. Thus when showers and thunderstorms develop, most of the rain evaporates before reaching the ground.

Basic physical processes using simplified buoyancy equations

Start by using the vertical momentum equation

{dwover dt} = -{1overrho} {partial poverpartial z}-g

By decomposing the variables into a basic state and a perturbation, defining the basic states, and using the Ideal Gas Law (p = rho RT_v), then the equation can be written in the form

B equiv -{rho^primeoverbarrho}g = g{T^prime_v - bar T_v over bar T_v}

where B is used to denote buoyancy. Note that the virtual temperature correction usually is rather small and to a good approximation, it can be ignored when computing buoyancy. Finally, the effects of precipitation loading on the vertical motion are parameterized by including a term that decreases buoyancy as the liquid water mixing ratio (ell) increases, leading to the final form of the parcel's momentum equation:

{dw^primeover dt} = {1overbarrho}{partial p^primeoverpartial z} + B - gell

The first term is the effect of perturbation pressure gradients on vertical motion. In some storms this term has a large effect on updrafts (Rotunno and Klemp, 1982) but there is not much reason to believe it has much of an impact on downdrafts (at least to a first approximation) and therefore will be ignored.

The second term is the effect of buoyancy on vertical motion. Cleary, in the case of microbursts, one expects to find that B is negative meaning the parcel is cooler than its environment. This cooling typically takes place as a result of phase changes (evaporation, melting, and sublimation). Precipitation particles that are small, but are in great quantity, promote a maximum contribution to cooling and, hence, to creation of negative buoyancy. The major contribution to this process is from evaporation.

The last term is the effect of water loading. Whereas evaporation is promoted by large numbers of small droplets, it only takes a few large drops to contribute substantially to the downward acceleration of air parcels. This term is associated with storms having high precipitation rates. Comparing the effects of water loading to those associated with buoyance, if a parcel has a liguid water mixing ration of 1.0 gkg-1, this is roughly equivalent to about 0.3 K of negative buoyancy; the latter is a large (but not extreme) value. Therefore, in general terms, negative buoyancy is typically the major contributor to downdrafts.

Negative vertical motion associated only with buoyancy

Using pure "parcel theory" results in a prediction of the maximum downdraft of

-w_{rm max} = sqrt{2timeshbox{NAPE}}

where NAPE is the Negative Available Potential Energy,

hbox{NAPE} = -int_{rm SFC}^{rm LFS} B,dz

and where LFS denotes the Level of Free Sink for a descending parcel and SFC denotes the surface. This means that the maximum downward motion is associated with the integrated negative buoyancy. Even a relatively modest negative buoyancy can result in a substantial downdraft if it is maintained over a relatively large depth. A downward speed of 25 m/s results from the relatively modest NAPE value of 312.5 m²s-2. To a first approximation, the maximum gust is roughly equal to the maximum downdraft speed.

Danger to aircraft

The scale and suddenness of a microburst makes it a great danger to aircraft, particularly those at low altitude which are taking off and landing. The following are some fatal crashes and/or aircraft incidents that have been attributed to microbursts in the vicinity of airports:

A microburst often causes aircraft to crash when they are attempting to land (the above mentioned Pan Am flight is a notable exception). The microburst is an extremely powerful gust of air that, once hitting the ground, spreads in all directions. As the aircraft is coming in to land, the pilots try to slow the plane to an appropriate speed. When the microburst hits, the pilots will see a large spike in their airspeed, caused by the force of the headwind created by the microburst. A pilot inexperienced with microbursts would try to decrease the speed. The plane would then travel through the microburst, and fly into the tailwind, causing a sudden decrease in the amount of air flowing across the wings. The decrease in airflow over the wings of the aircraft causes a drop in the amount of lift produced. This decrease in lift combined with a strong downward flow of air can cause the thrust required to remain at altitude to exceed what is available.

Effects of microbursts

A microburst often has high winds that can knock over full grown trees. They usually last for a couple of seconds.

See also


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