The Relationship between Satellite-Inferred Frontogenesis and Squall Line Formation

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  • 1 General Sciences Corporation, Laurel, Maryland
  • | 2 Laboratory for Atmospheres, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
  • | 3 Laboratory for Atmospheres, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
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Abstract

A study of three years of GOES satellite imagery has been conducted to determine whether synthesis of the imagery with surface diagnostic analyses may prove useful for predicting the precise location and time of formation of squall lines generated by a particular type of frontal circulation transverse to surface cold fronts. Existence of this circulation is inferred from the development of a thin Line of shallow Convection clouds (LC) along the front simultaneously with that of a mesoscale (<100 km wide) Clear Zone (CZ) immediately behind the front and at the leading edge of a large area of stratus clouds. The observations suggest that a thermally direct circulation transverse to the surface cold front generated the line convection and clear zone (in the upward and downward branches of the circulation, respectively) in all 15 cases which met the strict criteria for an LC/CZ.

Squall lines were observed to form from the LC in 10 of the 15 cases examined, and nearly always within 90 min following the time when the CZ reached its maximum width. In addition, initial cumulonimbus development always occurred within 100 km of the diagnosed frontogenesis center at the LC. Therefore, this study suggests that both the timing and location of such squall lines should be predictable with very high accuracy. It is also shown that thermodynamic instability was insufficient for the formation of deep convection in the five non-thunderstorm cases.

Our results also strongly support the hypothesis of Koch (1984) that this mesoscale circulation was generated by differential sensible heating acting in conjunction with geostrophic deformation effects. The contrast of cloudy skies behind the front (prior to CZ formation) with nearly clear skies ahead of the front is largely responsible for creation of the differential heating pattern. This suggests that forecasters should watch for such cloud patterns near cold fronts.

Synoptic climatological conditions favoring the occurrence of this relatively rare phenomenon are also identified. The LC/CZ appears during the afternoon almost solely over the Great Plains states during spring and autumn. The line convection was found in all but one case to be parallel to, and either along or on the cyclonic side of, a prefrontal 850 mb jet. Although the LC/CZ is usually found on the anticyclonic side of upper-level jet streaks, it does not seem to prefer any particular jet quadrant. Diagnosis of the Sawyer-Eliassen equation for one case suggested that the mesoscale circulation was linked to a thermally direct circulation cell associated with the upper-level frontal zone.

The information provided in this paper should be valuable to the operational forecaster concerned with having some guidance about specific mesoscale trigger mechanisms for squall lines. This phenomenon can be isolated with conventional surface and satellite data in real time to provide accurate and timely forecasts of the formation of squall line activity.

Abstract

A study of three years of GOES satellite imagery has been conducted to determine whether synthesis of the imagery with surface diagnostic analyses may prove useful for predicting the precise location and time of formation of squall lines generated by a particular type of frontal circulation transverse to surface cold fronts. Existence of this circulation is inferred from the development of a thin Line of shallow Convection clouds (LC) along the front simultaneously with that of a mesoscale (<100 km wide) Clear Zone (CZ) immediately behind the front and at the leading edge of a large area of stratus clouds. The observations suggest that a thermally direct circulation transverse to the surface cold front generated the line convection and clear zone (in the upward and downward branches of the circulation, respectively) in all 15 cases which met the strict criteria for an LC/CZ.

Squall lines were observed to form from the LC in 10 of the 15 cases examined, and nearly always within 90 min following the time when the CZ reached its maximum width. In addition, initial cumulonimbus development always occurred within 100 km of the diagnosed frontogenesis center at the LC. Therefore, this study suggests that both the timing and location of such squall lines should be predictable with very high accuracy. It is also shown that thermodynamic instability was insufficient for the formation of deep convection in the five non-thunderstorm cases.

Our results also strongly support the hypothesis of Koch (1984) that this mesoscale circulation was generated by differential sensible heating acting in conjunction with geostrophic deformation effects. The contrast of cloudy skies behind the front (prior to CZ formation) with nearly clear skies ahead of the front is largely responsible for creation of the differential heating pattern. This suggests that forecasters should watch for such cloud patterns near cold fronts.

Synoptic climatological conditions favoring the occurrence of this relatively rare phenomenon are also identified. The LC/CZ appears during the afternoon almost solely over the Great Plains states during spring and autumn. The line convection was found in all but one case to be parallel to, and either along or on the cyclonic side of, a prefrontal 850 mb jet. Although the LC/CZ is usually found on the anticyclonic side of upper-level jet streaks, it does not seem to prefer any particular jet quadrant. Diagnosis of the Sawyer-Eliassen equation for one case suggested that the mesoscale circulation was linked to a thermally direct circulation cell associated with the upper-level frontal zone.

The information provided in this paper should be valuable to the operational forecaster concerned with having some guidance about specific mesoscale trigger mechanisms for squall lines. This phenomenon can be isolated with conventional surface and satellite data in real time to provide accurate and timely forecasts of the formation of squall line activity.

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