Mid-latitude cyclone


What is a mid-latitude cyclone?

-         The mid-latitude cyclone is a synoptic scale low pressure system that has cyclonic (counter-clockwise in northern hemisphere) flow that is found in the middle latitudes (i.e., 30°N-55°N)


o       There is a location (tropics vs. mid-latitudes) and size difference between hurricane and mid-latitude cyclone

§        Typical size of mid-latitude cyclone = 1500-5000km in diameter

§        Typical size of a hurricane or tropical storm = 200-1000km in diameter


Here is a picture of a typical mid-latitude cyclone and hurricane. Notice the size difference.


How does the mid-latitude cyclone form (for a longer description read pages 219-228)

1.    From polar front theory, we know that in the mid-latitudes there is a boundary between cold dry (cP) air to the north and warm moist (mT) air to the south

2.    Along this boundary a counter-clockwise circulation can set up at the surface, which acts to take warm air up from the south and cold air down from the north. This is called cyclogenesis.

3.    In the center of this circulation, there is mass convergence (all the air is moving in toward the center of the circulation much like when you make a whirl-pool in a pool, all the leaves and stuff floating around moves toward the center). When all that air hits the center, we have rising motion because it has nowhere else to go.

4.    If the upper levels are favorable for cyclone development, then there is a region of divergence aloft above the developing Low-pressure center. This will help pull the air that is converging at the surface upward and continue to develop the surface cyclone. (The upper levels also steer the system and make it progress east (like we learned earlier)).

a.     If the upper levels aren’t favorable for cyclone development, the cyclone won’t grow and the mass convergence into the Low at the surface will just pile up and fill in the Low and it will decay.

b.    Refer to the second figure below for the optimal situation.

5.    If the upper levels are favorable, then the mid-latitude cyclone will continue to develop and bring up mT air in the warm sector and bring down cP air in the cold sector.

a.     The mT air rises as it moves out ahead of the low helping to deepen the Low pressure center to the east and help it move along

b.    The cP air sinks behind the system and fills in the Low on the backside also helping to move the system along

                                                                          i.      It is this transfer of energy that both strengthens and propagates the mid-latitude cyclone!

6.    Once the mid-latitude cyclone is fully developed, well-defined fronts appear.

7.    As the mid-latitude cyclone reaches maturity, the central pressure will be at its lowest and the occluded front will begin to form (as the cold front catches up to the warm front).

8.    Once the system is occluded (all the warm air is above the cold air) the mass convergence acts to fill in the Low and therefore the pressure increases in the Low and the system decays.


Evolution of a mid-latitude cyclone. Each figure follows the description above 1-8

FIG10_001A.JPG (101312 bytes)FIG10_001B.JPG (99812 bytes)FIG10_001C.JPG (112322 bytes)

FIG10_001D.JPG (113684 bytes)FIG10_001E.JPG (116921 bytes)

The above figures were taken from www.u.arizona.edu/ ~korine/230/chap10_figs.htm



Diagram of flow (circulation) throughout the depth of the troposphere




Where do mid-latitude cyclones typically form (in North America in winter)? (Remember that cyclones like to develop along air mass boundaries)

-         Lee side of the Rockies = Lee Cyclones

o       Alberta Clippers

§        FAST MOVING and usually don’t have too much precip associated with them because they are far from a moisture source

o       Colorado Low

§        Intense Low, with strong warm air advection in the warm sector, very cold temps in the cold sector. If there is a lot of gulf moisture to work with, they there is usually sleet, freezing rain and rain associated with the warm front, strong thunderstorms along the southern edge of the cold front and snow along the backside and to the NW of the Low (even BLIZZARDS)

-         Along the East Coast

o       Gulf Low

§        Form along the southern coast where there is a thermal boundary between the warm ocean and cool land. Usually have a lot of precip associated with them because they are so close to the ocean

o       Hatteras Low and Nor’easters (aka  “bomb” cyclones)

§         These are the MOST INTENSE systems and they form along the thermal boundary between the warm Gulf Stream and the cold Atlantic coast. They can bring flooding rains along the coast and several feet of snow further inland as they use the ocean as a vast source of the moisture. These also develop very quickly and sometimes have pressure drops of 24mb in a single day. With a pressure drop of this magnitude you can imagine how fast the winds are around these things.


What are their typical tracks? See diagram below



Precip patterns (and types), winds, temperatures, fronts, upper level flow and clouds that are around a typical mid-latitude cyclone in winter.