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Aviation Meteorology

Synoptic scale features

Rev. 5 — page content was last changed 16 October 2010
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Large, moving pressure systems — cyclones and anticyclones — are synoptic-scale (or Coriolis-scale) systems. They have dimensions of 500–3000 km, probably last for several days, and are characterised by mainly horizontal motion and geostrophic equilibrium. They are the major features shown on the mean sea level surface charts and the forecast charts published daily (or more frequently) by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. The anticyclones were described in section 4.4; the other synoptic features appearing on those surface charts are described in this section. ('Synoptic' is from the Greek words meaning 'seeing together'.)

5.1 Air masses

An air mass is a relatively homogeneous body of air usually covering millions of square kilometres of the Earth's surface and perhaps around 20 000 feet thick; even extending to the tropopause. To be homogeneous, the air mass source region must be exclusively continental (dry air) or exclusively maritime (moist air). All air mass source regions lie in tropical (warm air) or polar (cold air) latitudes. The air masses originating there are modified by passage into — and interaction within — the mid-latitudes, so producing 'mid-latitude air'.

The modification of the air mass, by heating or cooling from the surface it is passing over, will change stability. Additional heating will make moist air more unstable, while additional cooling makes moist air more stable. Low-level convergence produces upper-level instability and low-level divergence produces upper-level stability.

The air masses, and their source regions, affecting the Australian climate are:

Equatorial maritime:
Hot, humid air with dewpoint around 25 °C, bringing monsoon conditions to northern Australia.
Tropical maritime:
Warm, humid air with dewpoint around 20 °C, bringing showers, rain and tropical cyclones.
Tropical continental:
The source region is northern Australia. Hot, dry air in summer, dewpoint around 0 °C, bringing heat waves to southern Australia. Warm, dry air in winter, dewpoint around 4 °C.
Southern Ocean maritime:
Cool, moist air with dewpoint around 10 °C, bringing clouds, rain and drizzle to southern Australia.
Antarctic polar continental/maritime:
Cold, moist air with dewpoint around 5 °C, bringing cold outbreaks to southern Australia with snow and sleet. (South of Australia, the coastline of Antarctica lies north of the Antarctic Circle with the ice pack extending to about 60°S, only 1200 km from Tasmania).

Frontal zones, or fronts, separate air masses of different characteristics. They usually extend from the surface to the middle troposphere, and occasionally to the upper troposphere. Within the frontal zone, changes of temperature, pressure, density and wind velocity are large compared to changes outside the frontal zone.

In section 4 we established that the Antarctic front is the boundary region between the intensely cold Antarctic polar continental air and the warmer, moister polar maritime air. Also that the polar fronts are the major frontal regions of the southern hemisphere — mixing between polar air, mid-latitude air and returning tropical air. The Antarctic and polar fronts are quasi-stationary frontal regions, and may extend for several thousand nautical miles. They are distinct from the mobile cold fronts that directly affect southern Australia's daily weather patterns.

The diagrams below indicate typical positions of the air masses, and the polar and Antarctic fronts, in the summer and winter seasons.

winter air masses diagram

summer air masses diagram

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5.2 Extra-tropical cyclones

The effect of the potential energy stored in the zone of strong surface temperature gradient in the polar frontal regions, with the cold air masses pushing north-west and wedging under the warmer air pushing south-east, is that the polar fronts spawn a series of migratory depressions south and west of Australia — typically in latitudes 35°S – 45°S. The depressions tend to be intense — surface pressures below 940 hPa with gradients of 50 hPa over 1500 km have been recorded.

These transient depressions forming in the westerly wind belt (also known as cold-core cyclones, lows, storm depressions or, more correctly, extra-tropical cyclones) — often with embedded, smaller-scale storms — are the principal cause of day-to-day weather changes in southern Australia.

A common theory for the development of these extra-tropical cyclones is that the interaction of the air masses cause a disturbance to develop on the line of the polar front. This initiates the process of converting the potential energy of the strong temperature gradient into the kinetic energy of a developing extra-tropical cyclone, so distorting the polar front into a wave-like configuration. The extent of each wave/trough is dependent on which air mass is stronger at that point. A wave crest may develop into an extra-tropical cyclone after several days (see following diagrams A to G) forcing southward movement of the warm air and northward movement of the cold air as mobile fronts. The intense, mobile cold front moves at 15–30 knots, faster than the warm front which it may eventually overtake to form an occluded front. That may then lead to an intensified storm.

 Southern Ocean storm development sequence

The development of the low also requires that the mass of the vertical column of air over the area is reduced by mass divergence, thus reducing the surface pressure. Consequently, the upper-air Rossby waves — and the jet streams — support and direct (and may enhance) the development of surface cyclones and other features.

The maturing storm depression usually moves south-east to about 60°S – 65°S, into the Ross Sea and the sub-polar low belt. Here, cut off from the warmer moister air, it decays. Depressions may have a life cycle of one week or so. Some primary depressions may head north-east into the high-pressure belt. As they are then isolated from the westerly wind belt, they are consequently termed cut-off lows.

Depressions tend to travel in groups of three or four, creating large eddies in the westerly wind belt. Secondary depressions occur on the trailing arm of the primary low cold front, and may curve north-east before decaying or swinging to the south-east. These secondary lows are often fast-developing, intense, short-lived storms.

The spring-time msl analysis (below) from the World Meteorological Centre, Melbourne, shows the synoptic features in a polar projection of half the southern hemisphere, from the prime to the 180° meridians. It covers the area of southern Africa at the left, the Indian and Southern oceans, Antarctica at the bottom, and Australia/New Zealand at the right. The planetary-scale synoptic features displayed are the Antarctic polar high and the two anticyclones of the sub-tropical high belt extending a ridge right across the chart and centred at 35°S — also with a spur extending south to link into the polar high.

msl analysis chart – polar projection – Oct 18, 2001 – Australian Bureau of Meteorology

There are also three or four centres of low pressure in the sub-polar low belt just off the Antarctic coastline at 65°S, each associated with an extensive front — some extending for maybe 3000 nautical miles. These are the polar fronts.

There are about four migratory lows in the westerly wind belt at 55°S, one at 150°E and a group around 30°E — each associated with mobile cold and warm fronts. The unusual element is the long trough (the dashed line) extending from north-west Australia into the Tasman Sea and the Southern Ocean. The front passing over the south-east corner of Australia brought with it a cold outbreak of polar maritime air.

The diagrams below are a four-day msl pressure forecast issued by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology [BoM]. Note the position of the fragmentary warm fronts well south of the mainland, and the frontal trough systems between the highs. A wide selection of the Bureau's daily msl analysis and prognosis charts can be viewed at BOM charts.

msl prognosis –  Oct 18, 2001 – Australian Bureau of Meteorology

In winter, intense primary depressions can develop at rates of one hPa per hour with the pressure gradient steepening towards the centre. Lows also develop in regions where no significant surface temperature gradient exists. They develop from the interaction of airstream flow and consequential frontal development. Weak lows may also form on the lee side of the Great Dividing Range.

Occasionally a cold-core high — which unlike a warm-core high, decreases in intensity with height — will form in the southern polar maritime air mass behind a cold front. They are usually short-lived, as the upper levels are warmed by subsidence, and the system moves north-east and merges with the high pressure belt. However, such highs behind an intense low can direct a major cold outbreak of sub-Antarctic air into south-eastern Australia.

If the cold-core anticyclone stays in the Southern Ocean and persists, it may form a blocking high, which interrupts and diverts the normal movement of the mobile cyclones. The same result is achieved if a warm-core high extends further south than normal.

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5.3 Mobile cold fronts

The mobile cold fronts, which develop with the extra-tropical cyclones, are typically 5000 feet deep at the nose and expand with depth. They may be 150 to 800 nm long and advance eastward at speeds of 15 to 40 knots — as indicated on the surface chart below. Mesoscale fronts may be much smaller. Small but sharp fronts also develop in the middle and upper troposphere.

Warm fronts occur in the region where warm, less dense air is moving in the general direction of the south pole and sliding up over the semi-stationary colder, denser air. The resultant slope is in the region of 1:100 to 1:300. Cold fronts — where colder, denser air is pushing under semi-stationary, warmer air — have a typical slope of 1:60, but the warmer air is tending to ascend slantwise across the slope of the cold front.

As the extra-tropical cyclones generally develop south of Australia — and the consequent warm fronts move south — the passage of a warm front over the mainland is rare. Part of a weak warm front may pass over Tasmania from a low developing in the south-east mainland corner or in Bass Strait. Such warm front occurrences over land are fragmentary, weak and transient. The BoM surface chart below shows a weak warm front forming at the south-east mainland corner, it subsequently disappeared within 24 hours.

BoM surface chart 15 October 2010 showing transient warm front

Similarly occluded fronts are rare occurrences in Australia; so, the remainder of this section deals solely with the structure and effects of cold fronts. The presence of a front does not of itself imply cloud formation and rain. Convergence is necessary to produce rain, and when the front is remote from a depression, then convergence may be absent. Cold fronts moving northward into south-west Queensland are usually shallow and diffused but may trigger a surge in the prevailing easterlies.

The two diagrams below show the cross-section of typical summer cold fronts. The upper diagram is that of an active summer cold front. When the low pressure system weakens, or the cold front trails towards the high pressure region, the air aloft subsides and warms, the upper cloud disappears and the front weakens — as shown in the lower diagram. Note that the diagrams greatly exaggerate the frontal slope.

Active summer cold front diagram

Subsiding  summer cold front diagram

In winter, if the normal pattern of eastward movement is halted then cold fronts will cross south-east Australia every few days. They are usually relatively weak but with widespread cloud bands, low cloud bases and showery precipitation. Some winter cold fronts may be vigorous and fast moving, with embedded thunderstorms and a narrow band of cloud and precipitation. Such winter fronts are usually associated with a very deep depression forming further north than usual.

Cross-section of an unstable cold front

When an active cold front moves north-east — particularly in spring and summer — a subsidence may occur in the cold air behind the frontal zone, which causes the frontal zone to bulge ahead of its surface position. Thus, the lifting of the warm air occurs ahead of the frontal surface position and is accompanied by increased instability — the nose of the cold front pushes up a bow wave that creates lift similar to orographic lift. Depending on the moisture content of the lifted air, thunderstorms — or even a squall line — may form ahead of the front.

Unstable  spring/summer cold front diagram

The sequence of events associated with the passage of such a front moving at 25 knots (but without a squall line) might be as follows:
In the transition zone ahead of the front, warm to hot north to north-westerly winds freshen, pressure is falling and cirrus clouds are moving from the west, three to six hours prior to passage of the front; this is followed by lowering cloud (Ac, As and Ns). Some rain occurs just ahead of the front, then thunderstorms and violent gusts, and the temperature drops suddenly as the frontal zone passes. In the cold air behind the front, the clouds and showers clear quickly, the wind backs to south/south-west and the pressure rises.

There may be a number of pressure changes in the transition zone ahead of any cold front, usually including wind squalls. The airflow in the zone is very unstable, producing large changes in wind velocity — both horizontal and vertical — and distinct lines of convection cells, which may form a squall line particularly in spring and summer.

Pressure changes with passage of cold front

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5.4 Synoptic isobaric features

East coast lows and cut-off lows

Depressions forming off south-west and south-east Australia tend to be large, deep and slow moving. They may dominate the local weather system, bringing heavy rain for several days, particularly in the cooler season. These depressions may be cut off from the westerly wind belt by a high pressure cell or ridge to their south.

Deep cut-off low on Western Australia coast, July 2004
Deep cut-off low off Western Australia coast

Slow moving,  NSW east coast  low
Slow moving, cut-off low — eastern coast

Blocking pairs

About ten times per year a semi-stationary system of high and low pressure cells, located in the Tasman Sea, can block the normal easterly procession of the highs and lows. The blocking pairs occur most frequently in winter with the low pressure cell or trough closer to the equator and the high pressure cell on the polar side, both out of their normal zone. (The high could be a warm-core high that has drifted south-east or a persistent cold-core high). A strong north/south wind is set up between them and the upper, westerly wind flow is split — with one part passing on the northern side of the blocking pair and the other part passing on the southern side.

Blocking pair,  Tasman Sea
Blocking pairs can cause abnormal weather patterns in south-east Australia. Persistent and recurring pairs lead to low rainfall and drought conditions.

5.5 The north-west cloud band

The north-west cloud band is a frequent feature in satellite weather images, typically extending over 2500 nm and existing for two to four days. Most occurrences disintegrate after six days. It originates in a convective system in the Indian Ocean south and west of Indonesia, where tropical maritime air flowing poleward on the western flank of a high pressure ridge — extending through eastern and northern Australia — conflicts with a pre-frontal trough of colder, drier air extending from southern Australia into north-western Australia.

North-west cloud band – Australian Bureau of Meteorology The maritime air is forced to rise, producing heavy stratiform cloud that eventually extends from the convective source (which continues to feed moisture into the system) to south-eastern Australia. The phenomenon occurs once or twice a month during the colder months. The vertical extent of the cloud band increases toward the south-east with a lowering base and an increasing height of the tops. Two or three times a year a fully active band will present cloud cover right across Australia, extending — unbroken — from very low levels to above 20 000 feet and joining with a low pressure system in the south-east corner. Heavy rain is often associated with the bands and conditions less than standard visual meteorological conditions [VMC] can exist for days.

Next — Southern hemisphere winds The next section of the Aviation Meteorology ground school covers southern hemisphere winds

Aviation meteorology guide modules

| Meteorology guide contents | The atmosphere and thermodynamics (part 1) | Thermodynamics (2) and dynamics |

| Effects of altitude — contained in the Flight Theory Guide module 2 & module 3 |

| Cloud, fog and precipitation | Planetary-scale tropospheric systems | (Synoptic scale systems) |

| Southern hemisphere winds | Mesoscale systems | Micrometeorology — atmospheric hazards |

| Airframe and engine icing | Atmospheric electricity | Atmospheric light phenomena |

| Aviation weather reports and forecasts |

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