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Thunderstorm Microburst (Gust Front)

The majesty of a looming thunderhead (colloquial for a thunderstorm cloud, technically identified as cumulonimbus), highlighted in bright white and tinged with shades of red and orange by a setting sun, belies the truly violent and potentially deadly nature of the beast. Viewed more closely, from beneath its base, the same storm takes on a truly frightening aspect, cutting off sunlight to appear dirty grey or black, with roiling, petulent fragments of cloud at its edges being ripped apart by strong wind shear. Seen at night, this monster puts on a dazzling light show, with high energy bolts of lightning crackling through the air to shake the very earth with reverberation caused by the nearly instantaneous heating of air molecules to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun.

Very strong and well-developed thunderstorms (referred to by meteorologists as cells; or, in the case of certain severe thunderstorms, supercells) can achieve heights exceeding 60,000 feet (18,000 meters). This pushes their tops well above the maximum altitudes attainable by today’s commercial airliners. It is fortunate that, except under the most extreme conditions, very few cells in an advancing line of thunderstorms (known as a squall line) can achieve such heights, leaving aircraft a means of navigating, albeit with an often bumpy ride for passengers, through the breach.

Thunderstorms are capable of producing a variety of intense and severe weather, including heavy rain, lightning, high straight-line winds, hail, and tornadoes. Of special concern to aircraft, particularly during takeoff and landing, are microburstsstrong downrush winds which often radiate outward from intense thunderstorms as they strike the Earth’s surface to form gust fronts or outflow boundaries. Microbursts have been responsible for commercial aviation crashes resulting in many deaths. Major airports have now been outfitted with special instrumentation to warn of such winds. The difference in air density between cold air plunging earthward behind a gust front and the warmer, lighter (less dense) surface air may become visible to weather radar as a thin arc advancing ahead of a thunderstorm cell.

The National Weather Service is tasked with the responsibility for determining thunderstorm and severe weather threat within the U.S. Thunderstorm microbursts are one of a variety of severe weather threats that must be assessed and accurately forecast by the NWS in order to fulfill its mission of protecting the public.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.   Original article published 4 March 2004, updated 22 June 2005.

Follow links to the right to learn more about microbursts and gust fronts. At the left margin, Related Links address topics of interest pertaining to thunderstorms and severe weather, including severe weather watches and warnings, lightning detection and monitoring, and other severe weather topics. View the Weather & Meteorology SiteMap for a complete list of meteorology and weather-related topics.

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