The sting at the end of the tail: Damaging winds associated with extratropical cyclones


  • K. A. Browning

    Corresponding author
    1. University of Reading, UK
    • Joint Centre for Mesoscale Meteorology, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, PO Box 243, Reading, Berkshire RG6 6BB, UK.
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Strong surface winds often accompany the low-level jets that occur along the cold fronts of extratropical cyclones, but there is evidence that the strongest surface winds occur in a distinctly different part of a certain class of cyclone. The most damaging extratropical cyclones go through an evolution that involves the formation of a bent-back front and cloud head separated from the main polar-front cloud band by a dry slot. When the cyclone attains its minimum central pressure, the trailing tip of the cloud head bounding the bent-back front forms a hook which goes on to encircle a seclusion of warm air. The most damaging winds occur near the tip of this hook—the sting at the end of the tail.

Observations of the Great Storm of October 1987 in south-east England are re-examined in some detail to study this phenomenon. The cloud head is shown to have a banded structure consistent with the existence of multiple mesoscale slantwise circulations. Air within these circulations leaves the hooked tip of the cloud head (and enters the dry slot) much faster than the rate of travel of the cloud-head tip, implying rapid evaporation and diabatic cooling immediately upwind of the area of damaging surface winds. The circumstantial evidence from the observational study leads one to hypothesize that the mesoscale circulations and the associated evaporative heat sinks may play an active role in strengthening the damaging winds. Regardless of how important this role may be, the evolution of the cloud pattern seen in satellite imagery is a useful tool for nowcasting the occurrence and location of the worst winds. Copyright © 2004 Royal Meteorological Society