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Title: Three-Dimensional Thermodynamic Observations in Supercell Thunderstorms from Swarms of Balloon-Borne Sondes

This study analyzes aboveground thermodynamic observations in three tornadic supercells obtained via swarms of small balloon-borne sondes acting aspseudo-Lagrangiandrifters; the storm-relative winds draw the sondes through the precipitation, outflow, and baroclinic zones, which are believed to play key roles in tornado formation. Three-dimensional thermodynamic analyses are produced from the in situ observations. The coldest air is found at the lowest analysis levels, where virtual potential temperature deficits of 2–5 K are observed. Air parcels within the forward-flank outflow are inferred from their equivalent potential temperatures to have descended only a few hundred meters or less, whereas parcels within the rear-flank outflow are inferred to have downward excursions of 1–2 km. Additionally, the parcels following paths toward the low-level mesocyclone pass through horizontal buoyancy gradients that are strongest in the lowest 750 m and estimated to be capable of baroclinically generating horizontal vorticity having a magnitude of 6–10 × 10−3s−1. A substantial component of the baroclinically generated vorticity is initially crosswise, though the vorticity subsequently could become streamwise given the leftward bending of the airstream in which the vorticity is generated. The baroclinically generated vorticity could contribute to tornado formation upon being tilted upward and stretched near the surface beneath a strong, dynamically forced updraft.

Significance Statement

Swarms of balloon-borne probes are used to produce the first-ever, three-dimensional mappings of temperature from in situ observations within supercell storms (rotating storms with high tornado potential). Temperature has a strong influence on the buoyancy of air, and horizontal variations of buoyancy generate spin about a horizontal axis. Buoyancy is one of the primary drivers of upward and downward motions in thunderstorms, and in supercell storms, horizontally oriented spin can be tipped into the vertical and amplified by certain arrangements of upward and downward motions. Unfortunately, the long-standing lack of temperature observations has hampered scientists’ ability to evaluate computer simulations and the tornadogenesis theories derived from them. We find that significant spin could be generated by the horizontal buoyancy variations sampled by the probes.

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Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
American Meteorological Society
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Monthly Weather Review
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 1689-1723
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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