Trough (meteorology)

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Representation of alternating troughs and ridges in upper-level westerlies for the Northern Hemisphere, with regions of convergence and divergence labeled. Trough.jpg
Representation of alternating troughs and ridges in upper-level westerlies for the Northern Hemisphere, with regions of convergence and divergence labeled.

A trough is an elongated (extended) region of relatively low atmospheric pressure, often associated with fronts. [1] Troughs may be at the surface, or aloft, or both under various conditions. Most troughs bring clouds, showers, and a wind shift, particularly following the passage of the trough. This results from convergence or "squeezing" which forces lifting of moist air behind the trough line.

Atmospheric pressure, sometimes also called barometric pressure, is the pressure within the atmosphere of Earth. The standard atmosphere is a unit of pressure defined as 1013.25 mbar (101325 Pa), equivalent to 760 mmHg (torr), 29.9212 inches Hg, or 14.696 psi. The atm unit is roughly equivalent to the mean sea-level atmospheric pressure on Earth, that is, the Earth's atmospheric pressure at sea level is approximately 1 atm.

Weather front boundary separating two masses of air of different densities

A weather front is a boundary separating two masses of air of different densities, and is the principal cause of meteorological phenomena outside the tropics. In surface weather analyses, fronts are depicted using various colored triangles and half-circles, depending on the type of front. The air masses separated by a front usually differ in temperature and humidity.


Unlike fronts, there is not a universal symbol for a trough on a weather chart. The weather charts in some countries or regions mark troughs by a line. In the United States, a trough may be marked as a dashed line or bold line. In the UK, Hong Kong [2] and Fiji, [3] it is represented by a bold line extended from a low pressure center [4] or between two low pressure centers; [5] in Macau [6] and Australia, [7] it is a dashed line. If they are not marked, troughs may still be identified as an extension of isobars away from a low pressure center.

Pressure system relative peak or lull in the sea level pressure distribution

A pressure system is a relative peak or lull in the sea level pressure distribution. The surface pressure at sea level varies minimally, with the lowest value measured 87 kilopascals (26 inHg) and the highest recorded 108.57 kilopascals (32.06 inHg). High- and low-pressure systems evolve due to interactions of temperature differentials in the atmosphere, temperature differences between the atmosphere and water within oceans and lakes, the influence of upper-level disturbances, as well as the amount of solar heating or radiationized cooling an area receives. Pressure systems cause weather to be experienced locally. Low-pressure systems are associated with clouds and precipitation that minimize temperature changes throughout the day, whereas high-pressure systems normally associate with dry weather and mostly clear skies with larger diurnal temperature changes due to greater radiation at night and greater sunshine during the day. Pressure systems are analyzed by those in the field of meteorology within surface weather maps.


A very large trough (about 8000 km or more) crosses the North Atlantic Ocean from north east to south west. The elongated cloud is surrounded by two big areas of higher atmospheric pressure, clearly shown with no clouds at all. Nov-12-2012-7am.gif
A very large trough (about 8000 km or more) crosses the North Atlantic Ocean from north east to south west. The elongated cloud is surrounded by two big areas of higher atmospheric pressure, clearly shown with no clouds at all.

A trough is not in a general term a boundary but an elongated area of lower air pressure. There are changes in wind direction across a trough but there is no change in air mass. While not specifically a surface boundary, troughs reflect the change in atmospheric conditions in the upper atmosphere. As such, troughs can be areas where showers and thunderstorms can form.

If a trough forms in the mid-latitudes, a temperature difference at some distance between the two sides of the trough usually exists and the trough might become a weather front at some point. However such a weather front is usually less convective than a trough in the tropics or subtropics (such as a tropical wave). Inversely, sometimes collapsed frontal systems will degenerate into troughs.

Tropical wave type of atmospheric trough

Tropical waves, easterly waves, or tropical easterly waves, also known as African easterly waves in the Atlantic region, are a type of atmospheric trough, an elongated area of relatively low air pressure, oriented north to south, which moves from east to west across the tropics, causing areas of cloudiness and thunderstorms. West-moving waves can also form from the tail end of frontal zones in the subtropics and tropics, and may be referred to as easterly waves, but these waves are not properly called tropical waves; they are a form of inverted trough sharing many characteristics with fully tropical waves. All tropical waves form in the easterly flow along the equatorward side of the subtropical ridge or belt of high pressure which lies north and south of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). Tropical waves are generally carried westward by the prevailing easterly winds along the tropics and subtropics near the equator. They can lead to the formation of tropical cyclones in the north Atlantic and northeastern Pacific basins. A tropical wave study is aided by Hovmöller diagrams, a graph of meteorological data.

Sometimes the region between two high pressure centers may also assume the character of a trough when there is a detectable wind shift noted at the surface. In the absence of a wind shift, the region is designated a col , akin to a geographic saddle between two mountain peaks.

Col (meteorology)

A col, also called saddle point or neutral point, is in meteorology, the point of intersection of a trough and a ridge in the pressure pattern of a weather map. It takes the form of a saddle where the air pressure is slightly higher than that of the low-pressure regions, but lower than that of the anticyclonic zones.


A trough is the result of the movements of the air in the atmosphere. In regions where there is upward movement near the ground and diverge at altitude, there is a loss of mass. The pressure becomes lower at this point.

At upper level of the atmosphere, this occurs when there is a meeting of a mass of cold air and another hot along a thin ribbon called a frontal baroclinic zone. We then have the creation of a jet stream that plunges the cold air towards the equator and hot air towards the poles, creating a ripple in the circulation that is called a Rossby wave [8] . These undulations give the hollows and peaks of altitude. In general, absolute vorticity advection is positive between these two features, but closer to the ridge, whereas it is negative just behind a trough.

Jet stream Fast-flowing atmospheric air-current

Jet streams are fast flowing, narrow, meandering air currents in the atmospheres of some planets, including Earth. On Earth, the main jet streams are located near the altitude of the tropopause and are westerly winds. Their paths typically have a meandering shape. Jet streams may start, stop, split into two or more parts, combine into one stream, or flow in various directions including opposite to the direction of the remainder of the jet.

Rossby waves, also known as planetary waves, are a natural phenomenon in the atmospheres and oceans of planets that largely owe their properties to rotation of the planet. Rossby waves are a subset of inertial waves. They were first identified by Carl-Gustaf Arvid Rossby.

Positive vorticity advection, or PVA, is the result of more cyclonic values of vorticity advecting into lower values of vorticity. It is more generally referred to as "Cyclonic Vorticity Advection" (CVA). In the Northern Hemisphere this is positive, whilst in the Southern Hemisphere it is negative.

At the surface, lifting air under positive vorticity advection is reflected by the formation of depressions and troughs. There will therefore be a slope between the barometric high altitude and that on the ground, this slope going towards the mass of cold air at high altitude (generally towards the Pole).

Positively/negatively tilted

Troughs have an orientation relative to the poles which is rarely North-South. In the Northern Hemisphere, positively tilted troughs will extend from the lowest pressure northeast to southwest while negatively tilted troughs have a northwest to southeast orientation [9] . In the Southern Hemisphere, the positive tilt will be southeast to northwest and the negative one southwest to northeast.

A trough will usually begin with a positive tilt as cold air moves toward the Equator [9] . The trough will become neutral (North-South) and then negatively tilted as the energy carried by the cold air races east though the atmospheric circulation and distorts its shape [9] . The positive tilt is thus the building phase of the trough and the negative tilt is the dissipation of its energy. Therefore, the clouds and precipitation will develop in the positive phase and the most severe weather will be in the negative phase [9] .

Types of trough

In addition to standard troughs, some may be described further with a qualifying term indicating a specific or a set of characteristics.

Inverted trough

An inverted trough is an atmospheric trough which is oriented opposite to most troughs of the mid-latitudes. Most (but not all) inverted troughs are tropical waves (also commonly called easterly waves).

Most troughs of low pressure in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere are characterized by decreasing atmospheric pressure from south to north while inverted troughs are characterized by decreasing pressure from north to south. The situation is opposite in the Southern Hemisphere. Inverted troughs in both hemispheres move to the west from the east, while mid-latitude troughs generally move with the westerlies toward the east.

Lee trough

A lee trough, also known as a dynamic trough, is "A pressure trough formed on the lee side of a mountain range in situations where the wind is blowing with a substantial component across the mountain ridge; often seen on United States weather maps east of the Rocky Mountains, and sometimes east of the Appalachians, where it is less pronounced." [10] It can be formed either as a result of the adiabatic compression of sinking air on the lee side of a mountain range, or through cyclogenesis resulting from "the horizontal convergence associated with vertical stretching of air columns passing over the ridge and descending the lee slope." [10] [11]

Weather associated

Convective cells may develop in the vicinity of troughs and give birth to a tropical cyclone. Some tropical or subtropical regions such as the Philippines or south China are greatly affected by convection cells along a trough.

In the mid-latitude westerlies, upper level troughs and ridges often alternate in a high-amplitude pattern. For a trough in the westerlies, the region just west of the trough axis is typically an area of convergent winds and descending air – and hence high pressure –, while the region just east of the trough axis is an area of fast, divergent winds and low pressure. Tropical waves are a type of trough in easterly currents, a cyclonic northward deflection of the trade winds.

See also

Related Research Articles

Cyclone large scale air mass that rotates around a strong center of low pressure

In meteorology, a cyclone is a large scale air mass that rotates around a strong center of low atmospheric pressure. Cyclones are characterized by inward spiraling winds that rotate about a zone of low pressure. The largest low-pressure systems are polar vortices and extratropical cyclones of the largest scale. Warm-core cyclones such as tropical cyclones and subtropical cyclones also lie within the synoptic scale. Mesocyclones, tornadoes and dust devils lie within smaller mesoscale. Upper level cyclones can exist without the presence of a surface low, and can pinch off from the base of the tropical upper tropospheric trough during the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere. Cyclones have also been seen on extraterrestrial planets, such as Mars and Neptune. Cyclogenesis is the process of cyclone formation and intensification. Extratropical cyclones begin as waves in large regions of enhanced mid-latitude temperature contrasts called baroclinic zones. These zones contract and form weather fronts as the cyclonic circulation closes and intensifies. Later in their life cycle, extratropical cyclones occlude as cold air masses undercut the warmer air and become cold core systems. A cyclone's track is guided over the course of its 2 to 6 day life cycle by the steering flow of the subtropical jet stream.

Surface weather analysis

Surface weather analysis is a special type of weather map that provides a view of weather elements over a geographical area at a specified time based on information from ground-based weather stations.

Horse latitudes

Horse latitudes, subtropical ridges or subtropical highs are the subtropical latitudes between 30 and 35 degrees both north and south where Earth's atmosphere is dominated by the subtropical high, an area of high pressure, which suppresses precipitation and cloud formation, and has variable winds mixed with calm winds.

Anticyclone opposite to a cyclone

An anticyclone is a weather phenomenon defined by the United States National Weather Service's glossary as "a large-scale circulation of winds around a central region of high atmospheric pressure, clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere". Effects of surface-based anticyclones include clearing skies as well as cooler, drier air. Fog can also form overnight within a region of higher pressure. Mid-tropospheric systems, such as the subtropical ridge, deflect tropical cyclones around their periphery and cause a temperature inversion inhibiting free convection near their center, building up surface-based haze under their base. Anticyclones aloft can form within warm core lows such as tropical cyclones, due to descending cool air from the backside of upper troughs such as polar highs, or from large scale sinking such as the subtropical ridge. The evolution of an anticyclone depends on a few variables such as its size, intensity, moist-convection, Coriolis force etc.

Intertropical Convergence Zone

The Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), known by sailors as the doldrums or the calms, is the area encircling Earth near the Equator, where the northeast and southeast trade winds converge.

Atmospheric circulation The large-scale movement of air, a process which distributes thermal energy about the Earths surface

Atmospheric circulation is the large-scale movement of air, and together with ocean circulation is the means by which thermal energy is redistributed on the surface of the Earth.

High-pressure area region where the atmospheric pressure at the surface of the planet is greater than its surrounding environment

A high-pressure area, high or anticyclone is a region where the atmospheric pressure at the surface of the planet is greater than its surrounding environment.

Low-pressure area region where the atmospheric pressure is lower than that of surrounding locations

A low-pressure area, low, depression or cyclone is a region on the topographic map where the atmospheric pressure is lower than that of surrounding locations. Low-pressure systems form under areas of wind divergence that occur in the upper levels of the troposphere. The formation process of a low-pressure area is known as cyclogenesis. Within the field of meteorology, atmospheric divergence aloft occurs in two areas. The first area is on the east side of upper troughs, which form half of a Rossby wave within the Westerlies. A second area of wind divergence aloft occurs ahead of embedded shortwave troughs, which are of smaller wavelength. Diverging winds aloft ahead of these troughs cause atmospheric lift within the troposphere below, which lowers surface pressures as upward motion partially counteracts the force of gravity.

The synoptic scale in meteorology is a horizontal length scale of the order of 1000 kilometers or more. This corresponds to a horizontal scale typical of mid-latitude depressions. Most high and low-pressure areas seen on weather maps such as surface weather analyses are synoptic-scale systems, driven by the location of Rossby waves in their respective hemisphere. Low-pressure areas and their related frontal zones occur on the leading edge of a trough within the Rossby wave pattern, while high-pressure areas form on the back edge of the trough. Most precipitation areas occur near frontal zones. The word synoptic is derived from the Greek word συνοπτικός, meaning seen together.


The westerlies, anti-trades, or prevailing westerlies, are prevailing winds from the west toward the east in the middle latitudes between 30 and 60 degrees latitude. They originate from the high-pressure areas in the horse latitudes and trend towards the poles and steer extratropical cyclones in this general manner. Tropical cyclones which cross the subtropical ridge axis into the westerlies recurve due to the increased westerly flow. The winds are predominantly from the southwest in the Northern Hemisphere and from the northwest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Cyclogenesis is the development or strengthening of cyclonic circulation in the atmosphere. Cyclogenesis is an umbrella term for at least three different processes, all of which result in the development of some sort of cyclone, and at any size from the microscale to the synoptic scale.

Mesoscale convective system complex of thunderstorms organized on a larger scale

A mesoscale convective system (MCS) is a complex of thunderstorms that becomes organized on a scale larger than the individual thunderstorms but smaller than extratropical cyclones, and normally persists for several hours or more. A mesoscale convective system's overall cloud and precipitation pattern may be round or linear in shape, and include weather systems such as tropical cyclones, squall lines, lake-effect snow events, polar lows, and Mesoscale Convective Complexes (MCCs), and generally form near weather fronts. The type that forms during the warm season over land has been noted across North America, Europe, and Asia, with a maximum in activity noted during the late afternoon and evening hours.

Block (meteorology) term in meteorology for large-scale patterns in the atmospheric pressure field that are nearly stationary, effectively “blocking” or redirecting migratory cyclones

Blocks in meteorology are large-scale patterns in the atmospheric pressure field that are nearly stationary, effectively “blocking” or redirecting migratory cyclones. They are also known as blocking highs or blocking anticyclones. These blocks can remain in place for several days or even weeks, causing the areas affected by them to have the same kind of weather for an extended period of time. In the Northern Hemisphere, extended blocking occurs most frequently in the spring over the eastern Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Extratropical cyclone type of cyclone

Extratropical cyclones, sometimes called mid-latitude cyclones or wave cyclones, are low-pressure areas which, along with the anticyclones of high-pressure areas, drive the weather over much of the Earth. Extratropical cyclones are capable of producing anything from cloudiness and mild showers to heavy gales, thunderstorms, blizzards, and tornadoes. These types of cyclones are defined as large scale (synoptic) low pressure weather systems that occur in the middle latitudes of the Earth. In contrast with tropical cyclones, extratropical cyclones produce rapid changes in temperature and dew point along broad lines, called weather fronts, about the center of the cyclone.

Upper tropospheric cyclonic vortex

An upper tropospheric cyclonic vortex is a vortex, or a circulation with a definable center, that usually moves slowly from east-northeast to west-southwest and is prevalent across Northern Hemisphere's warm season. Its circulations generally do not extend below 6,080 metres (19,950 ft) in altitude, as it is an example of a cold-core low. A weak inverted wave in the easterlies is generally found beneath it, and it may also be associated with broad areas of high-level clouds. Downward development results in an increase of cumulus clouds and the appearance of circulation at ground level. In rare cases, a warm-core cyclone can develop in its associated convective activity, resulting in a tropical cyclone and a weakening and southwest movement of the nearby upper tropospheric cyclonic vortex. Symbiotic relationships can exist between tropical cyclones and the upper level lows in their wake, with the two systems occasionally leading to their mutual strengthening. When they move over land during the warm season, an increase in monsoon rains occurs.

Cold-core low cyclone aloft which has an associated cold pool of air residing at high altitude within the Earths troposphere

A cold-core low, also known as an upper level low or cold-core cyclone, is a cyclone aloft which has an associated cold pool of air residing at high altitude within the Earth's troposphere. It is a low pressure system that strengthens with height in accordance with the thermal wind relationship. If a weak surface circulation forms in response to such a feature at subtropical latitudes of the eastern north Pacific or north Indian oceans, it is called a subtropical cyclone. Cloud cover and rainfall mainly occurs with these systems during the day. Severe weather, such as tornadoes, can occur near the center of cold-core lows. Cold lows can help spawn cyclones with significant weather impacts, such as polar lows, and Kármán vortices. Cold lows can lead directly to the development of tropical cyclones, owing to their associated cold pool of air aloft or by acting as additional outflow channels to aid in further development.

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

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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