Origins of Aircraft-Damaging Clear-Air Turbulence during the 9 December 1992 Colorado Downslope Windstorm: Numerical Simulations and Comparison with Observations

Terry L. Clark National Center for Atmospheric Research*, Boulder, Colorado

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William D. Hall National Center for Atmospheric Research*, Boulder, Colorado

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Robert M. Kerr National Center for Atmospheric Research*, Boulder, Colorado

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Don Middleton National Center for Atmospheric Research*, Boulder, Colorado

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Larry Radke National Center for Atmospheric Research*, Boulder, Colorado

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F. Martin Ralph NOAA/ERL/Environmental Technology Laboratory, Boulder, Colorado

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Paul J. Neiman NOAA/ERL/Environmental Technology Laboratory, Boulder, Colorado

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David Levinson CIRES, University of Colorado/NOAA, Boulder, Colorado

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Abstract

Results from numerical simulations of the Colorado Front Range downslope windstorm of 9 December 1992 are presented. Although this case was not characterized by severe surface winds, the event caused extreme clear-air turbulence (CAT) aloft, as indicated by the severe structural damage experienced by a DC-8 cargo jet at 9.7 km above mean sea level over the mountains. Detailed measurements from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Environmental Research Laboratories/Environmental Technology Laboratory Doppler lidar and wind profilers operating on that day and from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite allow for a uniquely rich comparison between the simulations and observations.

Four levels of grid refinement were used in the model. The outer domain used National Centers for Environmental Prediction data for initial and boundary conditions. The finest grid used 200 m in all three dimensions over a 48 km by 48 km section. The range of resolution and domain coverage were sufficient to resolve the abundant variety of dynamics associated with a time-evolving windstorm forced during a frontal passage. This full range of resolution and model complexity was essential in this case. Many aspects of this windstorm are inherently three-dimensional and are not represented in idealized models using either 2D or so-called 2D–3D dynamics.

Both the timing and location of wave breaking compared well with observations. The model also reproduced cross-stream wavelike perturbations in the jet stream that compared well with the orientation and spacing of cloud bands observed by satellite and lidar. Model results also show that the observed CAT derives from interactions between these wavelike jet stream disturbances and mountain-forced internal gravity waves. Due to the nearly east–west orientation of the jet stream, these two interacting wave modes were orthogonal to each other. Thermal gradients associated with the intense jet stream undulations generated horizontal vortex tubes (HVTs) aligned with the mean flow. These HVTs remained aloft while they propagated downstream at about the elevation of the aircraft incident, and evidence for such a vortex was seen by the lidar. The model and observations suggest that one of these intense vortices may have caused the aircraft incident.

Reports of strong surface gusts were intermittent along the Front Range during the period of this study. The model showed that interactions between the gravity waves and flow-aligned jet stream undulations result in isolated occurrences of strong surface gusts in line with observations. The simulations show that strong shears on the upper and bottom surfaces of the jet stream combine to provide an episodic “downburst of turbulence.” In the present case, the perturbations of the jet stream provide a funnel-shaped shear zone aligned with the mean flow that acts as a guide for the downward transport of turbulence resulting from breaking gravity waves. The physical picture for the upper levels is similar to the surface gusts described by Clark and Farley resulting from vortex tilting. The CAT feeding into this funnel came from all surfaces of the jet stream with more than half originating from the vertically inclined shear zones on the bottom side of the jet stream. Visually the downburst of turbulence looks similar to a rain shaft plummeting to the surface and propagating out over the plains leaving relatively quiescent conditions behind.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Terry L. Clark, National Center for Atmospheric Research, P.O. Box 3000, Boulder, CO 80307-3000.

Email: clark@ncar.ucar.edu

Abstract

Results from numerical simulations of the Colorado Front Range downslope windstorm of 9 December 1992 are presented. Although this case was not characterized by severe surface winds, the event caused extreme clear-air turbulence (CAT) aloft, as indicated by the severe structural damage experienced by a DC-8 cargo jet at 9.7 km above mean sea level over the mountains. Detailed measurements from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Environmental Research Laboratories/Environmental Technology Laboratory Doppler lidar and wind profilers operating on that day and from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite allow for a uniquely rich comparison between the simulations and observations.

Four levels of grid refinement were used in the model. The outer domain used National Centers for Environmental Prediction data for initial and boundary conditions. The finest grid used 200 m in all three dimensions over a 48 km by 48 km section. The range of resolution and domain coverage were sufficient to resolve the abundant variety of dynamics associated with a time-evolving windstorm forced during a frontal passage. This full range of resolution and model complexity was essential in this case. Many aspects of this windstorm are inherently three-dimensional and are not represented in idealized models using either 2D or so-called 2D–3D dynamics.

Both the timing and location of wave breaking compared well with observations. The model also reproduced cross-stream wavelike perturbations in the jet stream that compared well with the orientation and spacing of cloud bands observed by satellite and lidar. Model results also show that the observed CAT derives from interactions between these wavelike jet stream disturbances and mountain-forced internal gravity waves. Due to the nearly east–west orientation of the jet stream, these two interacting wave modes were orthogonal to each other. Thermal gradients associated with the intense jet stream undulations generated horizontal vortex tubes (HVTs) aligned with the mean flow. These HVTs remained aloft while they propagated downstream at about the elevation of the aircraft incident, and evidence for such a vortex was seen by the lidar. The model and observations suggest that one of these intense vortices may have caused the aircraft incident.

Reports of strong surface gusts were intermittent along the Front Range during the period of this study. The model showed that interactions between the gravity waves and flow-aligned jet stream undulations result in isolated occurrences of strong surface gusts in line with observations. The simulations show that strong shears on the upper and bottom surfaces of the jet stream combine to provide an episodic “downburst of turbulence.” In the present case, the perturbations of the jet stream provide a funnel-shaped shear zone aligned with the mean flow that acts as a guide for the downward transport of turbulence resulting from breaking gravity waves. The physical picture for the upper levels is similar to the surface gusts described by Clark and Farley resulting from vortex tilting. The CAT feeding into this funnel came from all surfaces of the jet stream with more than half originating from the vertically inclined shear zones on the bottom side of the jet stream. Visually the downburst of turbulence looks similar to a rain shaft plummeting to the surface and propagating out over the plains leaving relatively quiescent conditions behind.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Terry L. Clark, National Center for Atmospheric Research, P.O. Box 3000, Boulder, CO 80307-3000.

Email: clark@ncar.ucar.edu

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