If you’ve spent much time watching weather reports and forecasts on television, you’ve probably heard of the jet stream. Depending on where in the world you live or the time of year, it can be the harbinger of significant meteorological events.
What is the Jet Stream?
Jet streams are rapidly moving air currents, located several miles above the earth. They band and swirl as they move across the globe in a generally eastward direction. At any given time, you’re likely to experience two or three distinct jet streams in each hemisphere.
Just as there are currents in the ocean, there are also currents in the air – the jet stream. National Geographic explains that jet streams form because the sun heats the earth in an uneven manner. Some areas, such as the tropics, are warmer and others, such as the poles, are cooler with more temperate areas elsewhere on the planet.
During the day, when the earth heats up, the air closest to the earth heats up as well. That air then expands and becomes lighter than the surrounding air, causing it to rise and create a warm current. The cooler air, which also happens to be heavier air, is then forced down to replace the warm air creating a current of cool air.
Jet streams account for the strongest winds in the atmosphere with speeds ranging between 80 and 140 miles per hour. During winter months, when the variations between colder and warmer climates are greatest, the currents are faster.
U.S. Jet Streams of Concern
For most active weather patterns that directly impact U.S. weather patterns, there are two jet streams of concern.
- Polar Jet Stream
- Sub-Tropical Jet Stream
The polar jet stream, though, is the one that has the most significant impact on U.S. weather. In general, colder air flows north of the jet stream with warmer air remaining south of the dividing weather line.
Gulf Coast States, on the other hand are more impacted by the sub-tropical jet stream, particular during hurricane season. A strong sub-tropical jet steam can produce a great deal of wind shear that will either substantially weaken hurricanes or destroy them, reports USA Today. A weaker sub-tropical jet stream, though, will allow tropical storms and hurricanes to develop and grow, creating more active hurricane seasons.
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