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Illustration of a microburst. The air moves in a downward motion until it hits ground level. It then spreads outward in all directions. The wind regime in a microburst is opposite to that of a tornado. Microburstnasa.JPG
Illustration of a microburst. The air moves in a downward motion until it hits ground level. It then spreads outward in all directions. The wind regime in a microburst is opposite to that of a tornado.
Tree damage from a downburst Downburst damage.jpg
Tree damage from a downburst

A microburst is an intense small-scale downdraft produced by a thunderstorm or rain shower. There are two types of microbursts: wet microbursts and dry microbursts. They go through three stages in their cycle, the downburst, outburst, and cushion stages also called "Suriano's Stroke". [1] A microburst can be particularly dangerous to aircraft, especially during landing, due to the wind shear caused by its gust front. Several fatal and historic crashes have been attributed to the phenomenon over the past several decades, and flight crew training goes to great lengths on how to properly recover from a microburst/wind shear event.

Thunderstorm type of weather

A thunderstorm, also known as an electrical storm or a lightning storm, is a storm characterized by the presence of lightning and its acoustic effect on the Earth's atmosphere, known as thunder. Relatively weak thunderstorms are sometimes called thundershowers. Thunderstorms occur in a type of cloud known as a cumulonimbus. They are usually accompanied by strong winds, and often produce heavy rain and sometimes snow, sleet, or hail, but some thunderstorms produce little precipitation or no precipitation at all. Thunderstorms may line up in a series or become a rainband, known as a squall line. Strong or severe thunderstorms include some of the most dangerous weather phenomena, including large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes. Some of the most persistent severe thunderstorms, known as supercells, rotate as do cyclones. While most thunderstorms move with the mean wind flow through the layer of the troposphere that they occupy, vertical wind shear sometimes causes a deviation in their course at a right angle to the wind shear direction.

Aircraft machine that is able to fly by gaining support from the air other than the reactions of the air against the earth’s surface

An aircraft is a machine that is able to fly by gaining support from the air. It counters the force of gravity by using either static lift or by using the dynamic lift of an airfoil, or in a few cases the downward thrust from jet engines. Common examples of aircraft include airplanes, helicopters, airships, gliders, and hot air balloons.

Wind shear

Wind shear, sometimes referred to as wind gradient, is a difference in wind speed or direction over a relatively short distance in the atmosphere. Atmospheric wind shear is normally described as either vertical or horizontal wind shear. Vertical wind shear is a change in wind speed or direction with change in altitude. Horizontal wind shear is a change in wind speed with change in lateral position for a given altitude.


A microburst often has high winds that can knock over fully grown trees. They usually last for seconds to minutes.

History of term

The term was defined by mesoscale meteorology expert Ted 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. [2] Fujita also coined the term macroburst for downbursts larger than 4 km (2.5 mi). [3]

Mesoscale meteorology

Mesoscale meteorology is the study of weather systems smaller than synoptic scale systems but larger than microscale and storm-scale cumulus systems. Horizontal dimensions generally range from around 5 kilometers to several hundred kilometers. Examples of mesoscale weather systems are sea breezes, squall lines, and mesoscale convective complexes.

Ted Fujita Japanese-American severe storms researcher

Tetsuya Theodore "Ted" Fujita was a prominent Japanese-American severe storms researcher. His research at the University of Chicago on severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and typhoons revolutionized the knowledge of each. Although he is probably best known for creating the Fujita scale of tornado intensity and damage., he also discovered downbursts and microbursts, and was an instrumental figure in advancing modern understanding of many severe weather phenomena and how they affect people and communities, especially through his work exploring the relationship between wind speed and damage.


A downburst is a strong ground-level wind system that emanates from a point source above and blows radially, that is, in straight lines in all directions from the point of contact at ground level. Often producing damaging winds, it may be confused with a tornado, where high-velocity winds circle a central area, and air moves inward and upward; by contrast, in a downburst, winds are directed downward and then outward from the surface landing point.

A distinction can be made between a wet microburst which consists of precipitation and a dry microburst which typically consists of virga. [4] They generally are formed by precipitation-cooled air rushing to the surface, but they perhaps also could be powered by strong winds aloft being deflected toward the surface by dynamical processes in a thunderstorm (see rear flank downdraft).

Virga clouds supplementary feature; precipitation that doesnt reach the ground

In meteorology, a virga is an observable streak or shaft of precipitation falling from a cloud that evaporates or sublimates before reaching the ground. A shaft of precipitation that does not evaporate before reaching the ground is a precipitation shaft. At high altitudes the precipitation falls mainly as ice crystals before melting and finally evaporating; this is often due to compressional heating, because the air pressure increases closer to the ground. It is very common in deserts and temperate climates. In North America, it is commonly seen in the Western United States and the Canadian Prairies. It is also very common in the Middle East, Australia, and North Africa.

Rear flank downdraft

The rear flank downdraft or RFD is a region of dry air wrapping around the back of a mesocyclone in a supercell thunderstorm. These areas of descending air are thought to be essential in the production of many supercellular tornadoes. Large hail within the rear flank downdraft often shows up brightly as a hook on weather radar images, producing the characteristic hook echo, which often indicates the presence of a tornado.

Dry microbursts

Dry microburst schematic Drymicroburst.jpg
Dry microburst schematic

When rain falls below the 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. High winds spread out in this type of pattern showing little or no curvature are known as straight-line winds. [5]

Cloud base

A cloud base is the lowest altitude of the visible portion of a cloud. It is traditionally expressed either in metres or feet above mean sea level or above a planetary surface, or as the pressure level corresponding to this altitude in hectopascals.

Dry microbursts produced by high based thunderstorms that generate little to no 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 three important variables: mid-level moisture, a deep and dry adiabatic lapse rate in the sub-cloud layer, and low surface relative humidity.

Skew-T log-P diagram

A skew-T log-P diagram is one of four thermodynamic diagrams commonly used in weather analysis and forecasting. In 1947, N. Herlofson proposed a modification to the emagram that allows straight, horizontal isobars and provides for a large angle between isotherms and dry adiabats, similar to that in the tephigram. It was thus more suitable for some of the newer analysis techniques being invented by the United States Air Force.

High Plains (United States) subregion of the Great Plains mostly in the Western United States

The High Plains are a subregion of the Great Plains mostly in the Western United States, but also partly in the Midwest states of Nebraska, Kansas, and South Dakota, generally encompassing the western part of the Great Plains before the region reaches the Rocky Mountains. The High Plains are located in southeastern Wyoming, southwestern South Dakota, western Nebraska, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, eastern New Mexico, western Oklahoma, and south of the Texas Panhandle. The southern region of the Western High Plains ecology region contains the geological formation known as Llano Estacado which can be seen from a short distance or on satellite maps. From east to west, the High Plains rise in elevation from around 1,160 feet (350 m) to over 7,800 feet (2,400 m).

The lapse rate is the rate at which an atmospheric variable, normally temperature in Earth's atmosphere, changes with altitude. Lapse rate arises from the word lapse, in the sense of a gradual change. It corresponds to the vertical component of the spatial gradient of temperature. Although this concept is most often applied to the Earth's troposphere, it can be extended to any gravitationally supported parcel of gas.

Wet microbursts

Wet microbursts are downbursts accompanied by significant precipitation at the surface. [6] These downbursts rely more on the drag of precipitation for downward acceleration of parcels as well as the 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 1 km (0.62 mi) above ground level (Proctor, 1989). These factors, among others, make forecasting wet microbursts difficult.

CharacteristicDry MicroburstWet Microburst
Location of highest probability within the United States Midwest / West Southeast
PrecipitationLittle or noneModerate or heavy
Cloud basesAs high as 500 mb (hPa)As high as 850 mb (hPa)
Features below cloud base Virga Precipitation shaft
Primary catalystEvaporative coolingPrecipitation loading and evaporative cooling
Environment below cloud baseDeep dry layer/low relative humidity/dry adiabatic lapse rateShallow dry layer/high relative humidity/moist adiabatic lapse rate

Development stages of microbursts

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

Physical processes of dry and wet microbursts

Microburst crosssection (vectored).svg

Basic physical processes using simplified buoyancy equations

Start by using the vertical momentum equation:

By decomposing the variables into a basic state and a perturbation, defining the basic states, and using the ideal gas law (), then the equation can be written in the form

where B is buoyancy. 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 parametrized by including a term that decreases buoyancy as the liquid water mixing ratio () increases, leading to the final form of the parcel's momentum equation:

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. Clearly, 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 requires 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 buoyancy, if a parcel has a liquid water mixing ratio of 1.0 g kg −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. [8]

Negative vertical motion associated only with buoyancy

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

where NAPE is the negative available potential energy,

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 (56 mph; 90 km/h) results from the relatively modest NAPE value of 312.5 m2 s−2. To a first approximation, the maximum gust is roughly equal to the maximum downdraft speed. [8]

Danger to aircraft

A series of photographs of the surface curl soon after a microburst impacted the surface Microburst - NOAA.jpg
A series of photographs of the surface curl soon after a microburst impacted the surface

The scale and suddenness of a microburst makes it a notorious danger to aircraft, particularly those at low altitude which are taking off or 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 BOAC and Pan Am flights are notable exceptions). 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, thus causing the aircraft to stall. [9] If the plane is at a low altitude shortly after takeoff or during landing, it will not have sufficient altitude to recover.

The strongest microburst recorded thus far occurred at Andrews Field, Maryland on August 1st 1983, with wind speeds reaching 240.5 km/h (149.5 mi/h). [11]

Danger to buildings

Strong microburst winds flip a several-ton shipping container up the side of a hill, Vaughan, Ontario, Canada Downburst wind damage vaughan CN rail yard east side near Keele street 23 04 07.jpg
Strong microburst winds flip a several-ton shipping container up the side of a hill, Vaughan, Ontario, Canada

See also

Related Research Articles

Supercell thunderstorm that is characterized by the presence of a mesocyclone

A supercell is a thunderstorm characterized by the presence of a mesocyclone: a deep, persistently rotating updraft. For this reason, these storms are sometimes referred to as rotating thunderstorms. Of the four classifications of thunderstorms, supercells are the overall least common and have the potential to be the most severe. Supercells are often isolated from other thunderstorms, and can dominate the local weather up to 32 kilometres (20 mi) away. They tend to last 2-4 hours.

Eastern Air Lines Flight 66

Eastern Air Lines Flight 66 was a regularly scheduled flight from New Orleans to New York City that crashed on June 24, 1975 while on approach to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, killing 113 of the 124 people on board. The crash was determined to be caused by wind shear caused by a microburst, but the airport and flight crew's failure to recognize the severe weather hazard were also contributing factors.

Outflow boundary

An outflow boundary, also known as a gust front, is a storm-scale or mesoscale boundary separating thunderstorm-cooled air (outflow) from the surrounding air; similar in effect to a cold front, with passage marked by a wind shift and usually a drop in temperature and a related pressure jump. Outflow boundaries can persist for 24 hours or more after the thunderstorms that generated them dissipate, and can travel hundreds of kilometers from their area of origin. New thunderstorms often develop along outflow boundaries, especially near the point of intersection with another boundary. Outflow boundaries can be seen either as fine lines on weather radar imagery or else as arcs of low clouds on weather satellite imagery. From the ground, outflow boundaries can be co-located with the appearance of roll clouds and shelf clouds.

Vertical draft small‐scale current of rising air

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The Canton, Illinois Tornadoes of 1975 is a destructive summer tornado event which occurred as part of a significant severe thunderstorm outbreak concentrated from eastern Iowa across northern and central Illinois on the afternoon and evening of July 23, 1975.

Air-mass thunderstorm

An air-mass thunderstorm, also called an "ordinary", "single cell", or "garden variety" thunderstorm, is a thunderstorm that is generally weak and usually not severe. These storms form in environments where at least some amount of Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE) is present, but very low levels of wind shear and helicity. The lifting source, which is a crucial factor in thunderstorm development, is usually the result of uneven heating of the surface, though they can be induced by weather fronts and other low-level boundaries associated with wind convergence. The energy needed for these storms to form comes in the form of insolation, or solar radiation. Air-mass thunderstorms do not move quickly, last no longer than an hour, and have the threats of lightning, as well as showery light, moderate, or heavy rainfall. Heavy rainfall can interfere with microwave transmissions within the atmosphere.

Severe weather

Severe weather refers to any dangerous meteorological phenomena with the potential to cause damage, serious social disruption, or loss of human life. Types of severe weather phenomena vary, depending on the latitude, altitude, topography, and atmospheric conditions. High winds, hail, excessive precipitation, and wildfires are forms and effects of severe weather, as are thunderstorms, downbursts, tornadoes, waterspouts, tropical cyclones, and extratropical cyclones. Regional and seasonal severe weather phenomena include blizzards (snowstorms), ice storms, and duststorms.

Atmospheric convection

Atmospheric convection is the result of a parcel-environment instability, or temperature difference layer in the atmosphere. Different lapse rates within dry and moist air masses lead to instability. Mixing of air during the day which expands the height of the planetary boundary layer leads to increased winds, cumulus cloud development, and decreased surface dew points. Moist convection leads to thunderstorm development, which is often responsible for severe weather throughout the world. Special threats from thunderstorms include hail, downbursts, and tornadoes.

Vertically integrated liquid

Vertically integrated liquid (VIL) is an estimate of the total mass of precipitation in the clouds. The measurement is obtained by observing the reflectivity of the air which is obtained with weather radar.

1956 Kano Airport BOAC Argonaut crash

The 1956 Kano Airport BOAC Argonaut crash occurred on 24 June 1956 when a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) four-engined Canadair C-4 Argonaut airliner registered G-ALHE crashed into a tree on departure from Kano Airport in Nigeria, three crew and 29 passengers were killed.

The following is a glossary of tornado terms. It includes scientific as well as selected informal terminology.

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A precipitation shaft is a weather phenomenon, visible from the ground at large distances from the storm system, as a dark vertical shaft of heavy rain, hail, or snow, generally localized over a relatively small area.

Glossary of meteorology Wikimedia list article

This glossary of meteorology is a list of terms and concepts relevant to meteorology and the atmospheric sciences, their sub-disciplines, and related fields.



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