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Edward J. Zipser
Kurt R. Lutz


Reflectivity data from Doppler radars are used to construct vertical profiles of radar reflectivity (VPRR) of convective cells in mesoscale convective systems (MCSS) in three different environmental regimes. The National Center for Atmospheric Research CP-3 and CP-4 radars are used to calculate median VPRR for MCSs in the Oklahoma-Kansas Preliminary Regional Experiment for STORM-Central in 1985. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere radar in Darwin, Australia, is used to calculate VPRR for MCSs observed both in oceanic, monsoon regimes and in continental, break period regimes during the wet seasons of 1987/88 and 1988/89.

The midlatitude and tropical continental VPRRs both exhibit maximum reflectivity somewhat above the surface and have a gradual decrease in reflectivity with height above the freezing level. In sharp contrast, the tropical oceanic profile has a maximum reflectivity at the lowest level and a very rapid decrease in reflectivity with height beginning just above the freezing level. The tropical oceanic profile in the Darwin area is almost the same shape as that for two other tropical oceanic regimes, leading to the conclusion that it is characteristic.

The absolute values of reflectivity in the 0° to −20°C range are compared with values in the literature thought to represent a threshold for rapid storm electrification leading to lightning, about 40 dBZ at −10°C. Most oceanic cells have reflectivities below the threshold; most midlatitude continental cells exceed the threshold, and the tropical continental cells are about equally divided above and below the threshold. The large negative vertical gradient of reflectivity in this temperature range for oceanic storms is hypothesized to be a direct result of the characteristically weaker vertical velocities observed in MCSs over tropical oceans. It is proposed, as a necessary condition for rapid electrification, that a convective cell must have its updraft speed exceed some threshold value. Based upon field program data, a tentative estimate for the magnitude of this threshold is 6–7 m s−1 for mean speed and 10–12 m s−1 for peak speed.

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