NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS SR-145
A COMPREHENSIVE GLOSSARY OF
WEATHER TERMS FOR STORM SPOTTERS
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*Scud (or Fractus) - Small, ragged, low cloud fragments that are unattached to a larger cloud base and often seen with and behind cold fronts and thunderstorm gust fronts. Such clouds generally are associated with cool moist air, such as thunderstorm outflow.
SELS - SEvere Local Storms Unit, former name of the Operations Branch of the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, OK (formerly in Kansas City, MO).
*Severe Thunderstorm - A thunderstorm which produces tornadoes, hail 0.75 inches or more in diameter, or winds of 50 knots (58 mph) or more. Structural wind damage may imply the occurrence of a severe thunderstorm. See approaching (severe).
Shear - Variation in wind speed (speed shear) and/or direction (directional shear) over a short distance. Shear usually refers to vertical wind shear, i.e., the change in wind with height, but the term also is used in Doppler radar to describe changes in radial velocity over short horizontal distances.
*Shelf Cloud - A low, horizontal wedge-shaped arcus cloud, associated with a thunderstorm gust front (or occasionally with a cold front, even in the absence of thunderstorms). Unlike the roll cloud, the shelf cloud is attached to the base of the parent cloud above it (usually a thunderstorm). Rising cloud motion often can be seen in the leading (outer) part of the shelf cloud, while the underside often appears turbulent, boiling, and wind-torn.
Short-Fuse Warning - A warning issued by the NWS for a local weather hazard of relatively short duration. Short-fuse warnings include tornado warnings, severe thunderstorm warnings, and flash flood warnings. Tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings typically are issued for periods of an hour or less, flash flood warnings typically for three hours or less.
Shortwave (or Shortwave Trough) - A disturbance in the mid or upper part of the atmosphere which induces upward motion ahead of it. If other conditions are favorable, the upward motion can contribute to thunderstorm development ahead of a shortwave.
Slight Risk (of severe thunderstorms) - Severe thunderstorms are expected to affect between 2 and 5 percent of the area. A slight risk generally implies that severe weather events are expected to be isolated. See high risk, moderate risk, convective outlook.
Sounding - A plot of the vertical profile of temperature and dew point (and often winds) above a fixed location (Fig. 6). Soundings are used extensively in severe weather forecasting, e.g., to determine instability, locate temperature inversions, measure the strength of the cap, obtain the convective temperature, etc.
SPC - Storm Prediction Center. A national forecast center in Norman, Oklahoma, which is part of NCEP. The SPC is responsible for providing short-term forecast guidance for severe convection, excessive rainfall (flash flooding) and severe winter weather over the contiguous United States.
Speed Shear - The component of wind shear which is due to a change in wind speed with height, e.g., southwesterly winds of 20 mph at 10,000 feet increasing to 50 mph at 20,000 feet. Speed shear is an important factor in severe weather development, especially in the middle and upper levels of the atmosphere.
Spin-up - [Slang], a small-scale vortex initiation, such as what may be seen when a gustnado, landspout, or suction vortex forms.
Splitting Storm - A thunderstorm which splits into two storms which follow diverging paths (a left mover and a right mover). The left mover typically moves faster than the original storm, the right mover, slower. Of the two, the left mover is most likely to weaken and dissipate (but on rare occasions can become a very severe anticyclonic-rotating storm), while the right mover is the one most likely to reach supercell status.
*Squall Line - A solid or nearly solid line or band of active thunderstorms.
Staccato Lightning - A CG lightning discharge which appears as a single very bright, short-duration stroke, often with considerable branching.
Steering Winds (or Steering Currents) - A prevailing synoptic scale flow which governs the movement of smaller features embedded within it.
Storm-relative - Measured relative to a moving thunderstorm, usually referring to winds, wind shear, or helicity.
Storm-scale - Referring to weather systems with sizes on the order of individual thunderstorms. See synoptic scale, mesoscale.
*Straight-line Winds - Generally, any wind that is not associated with rotation, used mainly to differentiate them from tornadic winds.
Stratiform - Having extensive horizontal development, as opposed to the more vertical development characteristic of convection. Stratiform clouds cover large areas but show relatively little vertical development. Stratiform precipitation, in general, is relatively continuous and uniform in intensity (i.e., steady rain versus rain showers).
Stratocumulus - Low-level clouds, existing in a relatively flat layer but having individual elements. Elements often are arranged in rows, bands, or waves. Stratocumulus often reveals the depth of the moist air at low levels, while the speed of the cloud elements can reveal the strength of the low-level jet.
Stratus - A low, generally gray cloud layer with a fairly uniform base. Stratus may appear in the form of ragged patches, but otherwise does not exhibit individual cloud elements as do cumulus and stratocumulus clouds. Fog usually is a surface-based form of stratus.
Striations - Grooves or channels in cloud formations, arranged parallel to the flow of air and therefore depicting the airflow relative to the parent cloud. Striations often reveal the presence of rotation, as in the barber pole or "corkscrew" effect often observed with the rotating updraft of an LP storm.
Subsidence - Sinking (downward) motion in the atmosphere, usually over a broad area.
Sub-synoptic Low - Essentially the same as mesolow.
Suction Vortex (sometimes Suction Spot) - A small but very intense vortex within a tornado circulation. Several suction vortices typically are present in a multiple-vortex tornado. Much of the extreme damage associated with violent tornadoes (F4 and F5 on the Fujita scale) is attributed to suction vortices.
*Supercell - A thunderstorm with a persistent rotating updraft. Supercells are rare, but are responsible for a remarkably high percentage of severe weather events - especially tornadoes, extremely large hail and damaging straight-line winds. They frequently travel to the right of the main environmental winds (i.e., they are right movers). Radar characteristics often (but not always) include a hook or pendant, bounded weak echo region (BWER), V-notch, mesocyclone, and sometimes a TVS. Visual characteristics often include a rain-free base (with or without a wall
cloud), tail cloud, flanking line, overshooting top, and back-sheared anvil, all of which normally are observed in or near the right rear or southwest part of the storm (Fig. 7). Storms exhibiting these characteristics often are called classic supercells; however HP storms (Fig. 3) and LP storms (Fig. 5) also are supercell varieties.
Surface-based Convection - Convection occurring within a surface-based layer, i.e., a layer in which the lowest portion is based at or very near the earth's surface. Compare with elevated convection.
SWEAT Index - Severe Weather ThrEAT index. A stability index developed by the Air Force which incorporates instability, wind shear, and wind speeds as follows:
- SWEAT=(12 Td 850 ) + (20 [TT-49]) +( 2 f 850) + f 500 + (125 [s+0.2]) where
SWEAT values of about 250-300 or more indicate a greater potential for severe weather, but as with all stability indices, there are no magic numbers.
- Td 850 is the dew point temperature at 850 mb,
- TT is the total-totals index,
- f 850 is the 850-mb wind speed (in knots),
- f 500 is the 500-mb wind speed (in knots), and
- s is the sine of the angle between the wind directions at 500 mb and 850 mb (thus representing the directional shear in this layer).
The SWEAT index has the advantage (and disadvantage) of using only mandatory-level data (i.e., 500 mb and 850 mb), but has fallen into relative disuse with the advent of more detailed sounding analysis programs.
SWODY1, SWODY2 (sometimes pronounced swoe-dee) - The day-1 and day-2 convective outlooks issued by SELS.
Synoptic Scale (or Large Scale) - Size scale referring generally to weather systems with horizontal dimensions of several hundred miles or more. Most high and low pressure areas seen on weather maps are synoptic-scale systems. Compare with mesoscale, storm-scale.
*Tail Cloud - A horizontal, tail-shaped cloud (not a funnel cloud) at low levels extending from the precipitation cascade region of a supercell toward the wall cloud (i.e., it usually is observed extending from the wall cloud toward the north or northeast). The base of the tail cloud is about the same as that of the wall cloud. Cloud motion in the tail cloud is away from the precipitation and toward the wall cloud, with rapid upward motion often observed near the junction of the tail and wall clouds. See Fig. 7, supercell.
Compare with beaver tail, which is a form of inflow band that normally attaches to the storm's main updraft (not to the wall cloud) and has a base at about the same level as the updraft base (not the wall cloud).
Tail-end Charlie - [Slang], the thunderstorm at the southernmost end of a squall line or other line or band of thunderstorms. Since low-level southerly inflow of warm, moist air into this storm is relatively unimpeded, such a storm often has a higher probability of strengthening to severe levels than the other storms in the line.
Thermodynamic Chart (or Thermodynamic Diagram) - A chart containing contours of pressure, temperature, moisture, and potential temperature, all drawn relative to each other such that basic thermodynamic laws are satisfied. Such a chart typically is used to plot atmospheric soundings, and to estimate potential changes in temperature, moisture, etc. if air were displaced vertically from a given level. A thermodynamic chart thus is a useful tool in diagnosing atmospheric instability. (See Fig. 6, sounding.)
Thermodynamics - In general, the relationships between heat and other properties (such as temperature, pressure, density, etc.) In forecast discussions, thermodynamics usually refers to the distribution of temperature and moisture (both vertical and horizontal) as related to the diagnosis of atmospheric instability.
Theta-e (or Equivalent Potential Temperature) - The temperature a parcel of air would have if a) it was lifted until it became saturated, b) all water vapor was condensed out, and c) it was returned adiabatically (i.e., without transfer of heat or mass) to a pressure of 1000 millibars. Theta-e, which typically is expressed in degrees Kelvin, is directly related to the amount of heat present in an air parcel. Thus, it is useful in diagnosing atmospheric instability.
Theta-e Ridge - An axis of relatively high values of theta-e. Severe weather and excessive rainfall often occur near or just upstream from a theta-e ridge.
Tilt Sequence - Radar term indicating that the radar antenna is scanning through a series of antenna elevations in order to obtain a volume scan.
Tilted Storm or Tilted Updraft - A thunderstorm or cloud tower which is not purely vertical but instead exhibits a slanted or tilted character. It is a sign of vertical wind shear, a favorable condition for severe storm development.
*Tornado - A violently rotating column of air in contact with the ground and extending from the base of a thunderstorm. A condensation funnel does not need to reach to the ground for a tornado to be present; a debris cloud beneath a thunderstorm is all that is needed to confirm the presence of a tornado, even in the total absence of a condensation funnel.
Tornado Family - A series of tornadoes produced by a single supercell, resulting in damage path segments along the same general line.
Total-Totals Index - A stability index and severe weather forecast tool, equal to the temperature at 850 mb plus the dew point at 850 mb, minus twice the temperature at 500 mb. The total-totals index is the arithmetic sum of two other indices: the Vertical Totals Index (temperature at 850 mb minus temperature at 500 mb) and the Cross Totals Index (dew point at 850 mb minus temperature at 500 mb). As with all stability indices there are no magic threshold values, but in general, values of less than 50 or greater than 55 are considered weak and strong indicators, respectively, of potential severe storm development.
Tower - (Short for towering cumulus), a cloud element showing appreciable upward vertical development.
Towering Cumulus - (Same as congestus.) A large cumulus cloud with great vertical development, usually with a cauliflower-like appearance, but lacking the characteristic anvil of a Cb. (Often shortened to "towering cu," and abbreviated TCU.)
Transverse Bands - Bands of clouds oriented perpendicular to the flow in which they are embedded. They often are seen best on satellite photographs. When observed at high levels (i.e., in cirrus formations), they may indicate severe or extreme turbulence. Transverse bands observed at low levels (called transverse rolls or T rolls) often indicate the presence of a temperature inversion (or cap) as well as directional shear in the low- to mid-level winds. These conditions often favor the development of strong to severe thunderstorms.
Transverse Rolls - Elongated low-level clouds, arranged in parallel bands and aligned parallel to the low-level winds but perpendicular to the mid-level flow. Transverse rolls are one type of transverse band, and often indicate an environment favorable for the subsequent development of supercells. Since they are aligned parallel to the low-level inflow, they may point toward the region most likely for later storm development.
T Rolls - [Slang], same as transverse rolls.
Triple Point - The intersection point between two boundaries (dry line, outflow boundary, cold front, etc.), often a focus for thunderstorm development.
Triple point also may refer to a point on the gust front of a supercell, where the warm moist inflow, the rain-cooled outflow from the forward flank downdraft, and the rear flank downdraft all intersect; this point is a favored location for tornado development (or redevelopment).
Tropopause - The upper boundary of the troposphere, usually characterized by an abrupt change in lapse rate from positive (decreasing temperature with height) to neutral or negative (temperature constant or increasing with height). See Fig. 6, sounding.
Troposphere - The layer of the atmosphere from the earth's surface up to the tropopause, characterized by decreasing temperature with height (except, perhaps, in thin layers - see inversion, cap), vertical wind motion, appreciable water vapor content, and sensible weather (clouds, rain, etc.).
Trough - An elongated area of relatively low atmospheric pressure, usually not associated with a closed circulation, and thus used to distinguish from a closed low. The opposite of ridge.
Turkey Tower - [Slang], a narrow, individual cloud tower that develops and falls apart rapidly. The sudden development of turkey towers from small cumulus clouds may signify the breaking of a cap.
TVS - Tornadic Vortex Signature. Doppler radar signature in the radial velocity field indicating intense, concentrated rotation - more so than a mesocyclone. Like the mesocyclone, specific criteria involving strength, vertical depth, and time continuity must be met in order for a signature to become a TVS. Existence of a TVS strongly increases the probability of tornado occurrence, but does not guarantee it. A TVS is not a visually observable feature.
UKMET - A medium-range numerical weather prediction model operated by the United Kingdom METeorological Agency.
Updraft - A small-scale current of rising air. If the air is sufficiently moist, then the moisture condenses to become a cumulus cloud or an individual tower of a towering cumulus or Cb.
Updraft Base - Alternate term for a rain-free base.
Upper Level System - A general term for any large-scale or mesoscale disturbance capable of producing upward motion (lift) in the middle or upper parts of the atmosphere. This term sometimes is used interchangeably with impulse or shortwave.
Upslope Flow - Air that flows toward higher terrain, and hence is forced to rise. The added lift often results in widespread low cloudiness and stratiform precipitation if the air is stable, or an increased chance of thunderstorm development if the air is unstable.
Upstream - Toward the source of the flow, or located in the area from which the flow is coming.
UVM (or UVV) - Upward Vertical Motion (or Velocity).
VAD - Velocity Azimuth Display. A radar display on which mean radial velocity is plotted as a function of azimuth. See VWP.
Vault - Same as BWER.
Veering Winds - Winds which shift in a clockwise direction with time at a given location (e.g., from southerly to westerly), or which change direction in a clockwise sense with height (e.g., southeasterly at the surface turning to southwesterly aloft). The latter example is a form of directional shear which is important for tornado formation. Compare with backing winds.
Vertically-stacked System - A low-pressure system, usually a closed low or cutoff low, which is not tilted with height, i.e., located similarly at all levels of the atmosphere. Such systems typically are weakening and are slow-moving, and are less likely to produce severe weather than tilted systems. However, cold pools aloft associated with vertically-stacked systems may enhance instability enough to produce severe weather.
VIL - Vertically-Integrated Liquid water. A property computed by RADAP II and WSR-88D units that takes into account the three-dimensional reflectivity of an echo. The maximum VIL of a storm is useful in determining its potential severity, especially in terms of maximum hail size.
VIP - Video Integrator and Processor, which contours radar reflectivity (in dBZ) into six VIP levels:
- VIP 1 (Level 1, 18-30 dBZ) - Light precipitation
- VIP 2 (Level 2, 30-38 dBZ) - Light to moderate rain.
- VIP 3 (Level 3, 38-44 dBZ) - Moderate to heavy rain.
- VIP 4 (Level 4, 44-50 dBZ) - Heavy rain
- VIP 5 (Level 5, 50-57 dBZ) - Very heavy rain; hail possible.
- VIP 6 (Level 6, >57 dBZ) - Very heavy rain and hail; large hail possible.
*Virga - Streaks or wisps of precipitation falling from a cloud but evaporating before reaching the ground. In certain cases, shafts of virga may precede a microburst; see dry microburst.
V Notch - A radar reflectivity signature seen as a V-shaped notch in the downwind part of a thunderstorm echo. The V-notch often is seen on supercells, and is thought to be a sign of diverging flow around the main storm updraft (and hence a very strong updraft). This term should not be confused with inflow notch or with enhanced V, although the latter is believed to form by a similar process. See Fig. 7, supercell.
Volume Scan - A radar scanning strategy in which sweeps are made at successive antenna elevations (i.e., a tilt sequence), and then combined to obtain the three-dimensional structure of the echoes. Volume scans are necessary to determine thunderstorm type, and to detect features such as WERs, BWERs, and overhang.
Vorticity - A measure of the local rotation in a fluid flow. In weather analysis and forecasting, it usually refers to the vertical component of rotation (i.e., rotation about a vertical axis) and is used most often in reference to synoptic scale or mesoscale weather systems. By convention, positive values indicate cyclonic rotation.
Vort Max - (Slang; short for vorticity maximum), a center, or maximum, in the vorticity field of a fluid.
VWP - VAD Wind Profile. A radar plot of horizontal winds, derived from VAD data, as a function of height above a Doppler Radar. The display is plotted with height as the vertical axis and time as the horizontal axis (a so-called time-height display), which then depicts the change in wind with time at various heights. This display is useful for observing local changes in vertical wind shear, such as backing of low-level winds, increases in speed shear, and development or evolution of nearby jet streams (including low-level jets).
This product often is referred to erroneously as a VAD.
*Wall Cloud - A localized, persistent, often abrupt lowering from a rain-free base. Wall clouds can range from a fraction of a mile up to nearly five miles in diameter, and normally are found on the south or southwest (inflow) side of the thunderstorm. When seen from within several miles, many wall clouds exhibit rapid upward motion and cyclonic rotation. However, not all wall clouds rotate. Rotating wall clouds usually develop before strong or violent tornadoes, by anywhere from a few minutes up to nearly an hour. Wall clouds should be monitored visually for signs of persistent, sustained rotation and/or rapid vertical motion. See Fig. 7, supercell.
"Wall cloud" also is used occasionally in tropical meteorology to describe the inner cloud wall surrounding the eye of a tropical cyclone, but the proper term for this feature is eyewall.
Warm Advection - Transport of warm air into an area by horizontal winds.
Low-level warm advection sometimes is referred to (erroneously) as overrunning. Although the two terms are not properly interchangeable, both imply the presence of lifting in low levels.
Warning - A product issued by NWS local offices indicating that a particular weather hazard is either imminent or has been reported. A warning indicates the need to take action to protect life and property. The type of hazard is reflected in the type of warning (e.g., tornado warning, blizzard warning). See short-fuse warning.
Watch - An NWS product indicating that a particular hazard is possible, i.e., that conditions are more favorable than usual for its occurrence. A watch is a recommendation for planning, preparation, and increased awareness (i.e., to be alert for changing weather, listen for further information, and think about what to do if the danger materializes).
Watch Box (or Box) - [Slang], a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch.
Waterspout - In general, a tornado occurring over water. Specifically, it normally refers to a small, relatively weak rotating column of air over water beneath a Cb or towering cumulus cloud. Waterspouts are most common over tropical or subtropical waters.
The exact definition of waterspout is debatable. In most cases the term is reserved for small vortices over water that are not associated with storm-scale rotation (i.e., they are the water-based equivalent of landspouts). But there is sufficient justification for calling virtually any rotating column of air a waterspout if it is in contact with a water surface.
Wedge (or Wedge Tornado) - [Slang], a large tornado with a condensation funnel that is at least as wide (horizontally) at the ground as it is tall (vertically) from the ground to cloud base.
The term "wedge" often is used somewhat loosely to describe any large tornado. However, not every large tornado is a wedge. A true wedge tornado, with a funnel at least as wide at the ground as it is tall, is very rare.
Wedges often appear with violent tornadoes (F4 or F5 on the Fujita Scale), but many documented wedges have been rated lower. And some violent tornadoes may not appear as wedges (e.g., Xenia, OH on 3 April 1974, which was rated F5 but appeared only as a series of suction vortices without a central condensation funnel). Whether or not a tornado achieves "wedge" status depends on several factors other than intensity - in particular, the height of the environmental cloud base and the availability of moisture below cloud base. Therefore, spotters should not estimate wind speeds or F-scale ratings based on visual appearance alone. However, it generally is safe to assume that most (if not all) wedges have the potential to produce strong (F2/F3) or violent (F4/F5) damage.
WER - Weak Echo Region. Radar term for a region of relatively weak (reflectivity at low levels on the inflow side of a thunderstorm echo, topped by stronger reflectivity in the form of an echo overhang directly above it (see Fig. 2). The WER is a sign of a strong updraft on the inflow side of a storm, within which precipitation is held aloft. When the area of low reflectivity extends upward into, and is surrounded by, the higher reflectivity aloft, it becomes a BWER.
Wet Microburst - A microburst accompanied by heavy precipitation at the surface. A rain foot may be a visible sign of a wet microburst. See dry microburst.
Wind Shear - See shear.
Wrapping Gust Front - A gust front which wraps around a mesocyclone, cutting off the inflow of warm moist air to the mesocyclone circulation and resulting in an occluded mesocyclone.
WSR-57, WSR-74 - NWS Weather Surveillance Radar units, replaced by WSR-88D units.
WSR-88D - Weather Surveillance Radar - 1988 Doppler; NEXRAD unit.
Zonal Flow - Large-scale atmospheric flow in which the east-west component (i.e., latitudinal) is dominant. The accompanying meridional (north-south) component often is weaker than normal. Compare with meridional flow.
The author expresses his most sincere thanks to the many individuals who provided input to the glossary. The following individuals were instrumental in contributing, through helpful comments and suggestions: David Andra, Dave Beusterien, Dr. Harold Brooks, Bill Bunting, Don Burgess, E. Brian Curran, Dr. Charles A. Doswell III, Mike Emlaw, Mike Foster, Dave Gold, Paul Janish, Tim Marshall, Alan Moller, Mike Morgan, Steve Parker, Steve Piltz, Robert Prentice, Jim Purpura, Gene Rhoden, Lans Rothfusz, Dan Smith, Greg Stumpf, Steve Vasiloff. Steve Nelson and Doug Speheger both were instrumental in setting up the glossary on the WSFO Norman home page.
- American Meteorology Society, 1990: Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society Press, Boston.
- Caracena, Fernando, Ronald L. Holle, and Charles A. Doswell III, 1989: Microbursts - A Handbook for Visual Identification. NOAA, Environmental Research Laboratories, National Severe Storms Laboratory.
- Doswell, Charles A. III, 1982: The Operational Meteorology of Convective Weather. Volume I: Operational Mesoanalysis. NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS NSSFC-5.
- Doswell, Charles A. III, 1985: The Operational Meteorology of Convective Weather. Volume II: Storm Scale Analysis. NOAA Technical Memorandum ERL ESG-15.
- Fujita, T. T., 1985: The Downburst - Microburst and Macroburst. SMRP Research Paper No. 210, University of Chicago, 122 pp.
- Marshall, Tim, 19--: Storm Chase Manual. Published annually in association with Storm Track. Contact: 1336 Brazos Blvd, Lewisville TX 75067.
- Marshall, Tim (Editor): Storm Track. Published bi-monthly by Master Graphics, Lewisville TX. Contact the editor, 1336 Brazos Blvd, Lewisville TX 75067, for subscription information.
- National Weather Service, 1982: Spotter's Guide for Identifying and Reporting Severe Local Storms. Available from most National Weather Service offices, or from the U. S. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, Rockville MD 20852.