Severe Weather in the Mesosphere

So far (*knock on wood*), it’s been a pretty quiet year for severe weather. If you only count tornadoes, there have been 81 tornado reports from 1 January to 4 April this year. (11 of those have come just this week.) This is a lot fewer than the previous three year average of 192 tornadoes by the end of March. For that, you can thank the dreaded, terrifying “Polar Vortex” you’ve heard so much about over the winter. Tornadoes don’t like to come out when it’s cold everywhere. (Although, there was a notable exception on 31 March 2014, when a tornado hit a farm in Minnesota when the area was under a blizzard warning.)

I just said that there have been 11 tornado reports this week. Eight of those came in the past 24 hours. At the southern end of the line that brought the tornadoes to Illinois, Missouri and Texas, the severe weather included golf ball-size hail and this:


That report came from the National Weather Service in Corpus Christi, TX and it was caused by non-tornadic straight-line winds in Orange Grove. Winds capable of ripping a shed out of the ground, combined with golf ball-sized hail – that’s one recipe for broken windows. And it’s not a pleasant way to be awakened at 4:30 in the morning.

A couple of hours earlier, VIIRS caught this severe storm as it was rapidly growing. Here’s what the storm looked like in the high-resolution infrared channel (I-5, 11.45 µm):

VIIRS high-resolution IR image (channel I-5), taken at 08:13 UTC 4 April 2013.

VIIRS high-resolution IR image (channel I-5), taken at 08:13 UTC 4 April 2013.

Make sure you click on the image, then on the “2999×2985″ link below the banner to see the full resolution image, which, for some reason, is the only version where the colors display correctly.

The storm that hit Orange Grove is the southern-most storm, with what looks like a letter “C” imprinted on the top. (That kind of feature typically looks more like a “V” and makes this an “Enhanced-V” storm, which you can learn more about here. Enhanced-V storms are noted for their tendency to produce severe weather.) For those of you keeping score at home, the coldest pixel in this storm is 184.7 K (-88.5 °C).

Compare the image above with the Day/Night Band image below (from the same time):

VIIRS Day/Night Band image, taken at 18:13 UTC 4 April 2014

VIIRS Day/Night Band image, taken at 08:13 UTC 4 April 2014

There are a few interesting features in this image. For one, there’s a lot of lightning over Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. (Look for the rectangular streaks.) There’s even some lighting visible where our “Enhanced-V” is. Two, it takes a lot of cloudiness to actually obscure city lights: only the thickest storm clouds appear to be capable of blocking out light from the surface. Three: there are a lot of boats out in the Gulf of Mexico at 3 o’clock in the morning (and a few oil rigs as well). And four: notice what appear to be concentric rings circling the location where our severe storm is with its enhanced-V.

In this image, there is no moonlight (we’re before first quarter, so the moon isn’t up when VIIRS passes over at night). The light we’re seeing in those ripples is caused by “airglow”, which we’ve seen before. And the ripples themselves may be similar to what is called a “mesospheric bore.” If you don’t want to get too technical, a mesospheric bore is when this happens in the mesosphere. They are related to – but not exactly analogous to – undular bores, which you can read more about here.

Unlike the situation described for the undular bore in that last link, the waves here are caused by our severe storm. To put it simply, we have convection that has formed in unstable air in the troposphere. This convection rises until it hits the tropopause, above which the air is stable. This puts a halt to the rising motion of the convection but, some of the air has enough momentum to make it in to the stratosphere. This is called the “overshooting top“, and is where our -88°C pixels are located. (Look for the pinkish pixels in the middle of the “C” in the full-resolution infrared image.) The force of this overshooting top creates waves in the stable layer of air above (the stratosphere) that propagate all the way up into the mesosphere. The mesosphere is where airglow takes place, and these waves impact the optical path length through the layer where light is emitted. This of course, impacts the amount of light we see. The end result: a group of concentric rings of airglow light surrounding our storm.

You could make the argument that the waves we see in the Day/Night Band image are not an example of a bore. Bores tend to be more linear and propagate in one direction. These waves are circular and appear to propagate in all directions out from a central point. It may be better to describe them as “internal buoyancy waves“, which are similar to what happens when you drop a pebble into a pond. Only, in this case the pebble is a parcel of air traveling upwards, and the surface of the water is a stable layer of air. Compare the pebble drop scenario with this video of a bore traveling upstream in a river to see the difference.

In fact, if you look closer at the Day/Night Band image, in the lower-right corner (over the Gulf of Mexico) there is another group of more linear waves and ripples in the airglow that may actually be from a bore. It’s hard to say for sure, though, without additional information such as temperature, local air density, pressure and wind speeds way up in that part of the mesosphere.

By the way, you can see mesospheric bores and other waves in the airglow if you have sensitive-enough camera, like the one that took this image:

Photograph of a mesospheric bore. Image courtesy T. Ashcraft and W. Lyons (WeatherVideoHD.TV)

Photograph of a mesospheric bore. Image courtesy T. Ashcraft and W. Lyons (WeatherVideoHD.TV)

And, if you’re interested, the Arecibo Observatory has a radar and optical equipment set up to look at these upper-atmosphere waves (scroll down to Panel 2 on this page). The effect of these waves on atmospheric energy transport is a hot topic of research.

Golf ball-sized hail at the Earth’s surface is related to energy transport 100 km up in the atmosphere!


NOTE: This post has been updated since it was first written to clarify that the circular waves are likely not evidence of a bore, as was originally implied. They are more likely internal buoyancy waves, which are also known as gravity waves. For more information, consult your local library.