A closer look at ‘weather bombs’

10 12 2014

With strong winds affecting parts of the country today, there has been a lot of talk about ‘weather bombs‘ – but what are they and what do they mean for our weather?

First of all, it’s important to stress the UK is not being ‘hit’ by a weather bomb – the track of the low pressure system is well to the north of the UK, on roughly the same latitude as Iceland. We’re feeling its influence remotely.

This means we are not getting the very strongest winds associated with this system, but far north-western parts of the UK are seeing winds in the 70-80mph range as forecast. Further south the winds are much less strong – so London, for example, is unlikely to see even gale force gusts and mean wind speeds will be much lower.

Another point is that the ‘bomb’ element, the rapid deepening of the low pressure as explained below, happened on Monday – and its now just like any other powerful Atlantic low. In fact, the weather we’ll experience today is nothing unusual for the time of year.

Chart showing a low pressure in the north-west Atlantic at midday on Monday 8 December.

Chart showing a low pressure in the north-west Atlantic at midday on Monday 8 December.

Chart shows the same system 24-hours later, with a 26 millibar fall in pressure.

Chart shows the same system 24-hours later, with a 26 millibar fall in pressure.

So what is a ‘weather bomb?’

A ‘weather bomb’ is more usually referred to as ‘explosive cyclogenesis’ and is a meteorological term describing the rapid fall in central pressure of a depression (or low pressure) – it has to fall by 24 millibars in 24 hours in our latitudes to meet the criterion.

In many ways a ‘bomb’ can be seen as simply a more powerful, more intense version of the kind of Atlantic low pressure systems that normally affect the UK.

Climatologically speaking, explosive cyclogenesis events, or bombs, tend to occur most frequently over sea near major warm ocean currents, for example over the North Atlantic Ocean near the Gulf Stream or over the Western Pacific Ocean near the Kuroshio Current.

An explosive cyclogenesis event in these regions would then tend to happen as a particularly intense jet stream (which is a narrow band of strong winds high up in the atmosphere) interacts with an existing, and often weak, low pressure lingering near one of these warm ocean currents.

In other words, as with so many things in meteorology, it is the coming together of multiple ingredients that allow a ‘bomb’ to develop.

How many ‘bombs’ a year – and what is the impact?

There are gaps in the global observational record, so it’s difficult to give a definitive number of how many ‘weather bombs’ are seen globally each year. However, recent estimates based on a twenty to thirty year dataset suggest there are somewhere between 45 and 65 explosive cyclogenesis events per year, with more ‘bombs’ occurring in the northern than southern hemisphere.

Of course, it’s important to realise that the definition of a ‘bomb’ is somewhat arbitrary and ‘just a number'; a depression deepening only slightly less than 24hPa in 24 hours will still be a powerful depression more than capable of producing severe weather.

Another important point is that the track a ‘bomb’ takes relative to the British Isles, and at what stage of its development it does so, are key to its impact on UK weather – in general the closer the ‘bomb’ tracks to the British Isles the more severe the weather.





The worst storm in years?

28 01 2013

Various articles in the news today said that the weather over the weekend was the worst storm to hit the UK in years, and that there is more to come this week. There was indeed a very deep area of low pressure in the Atlantic over the weekend. At its deepest, on Saturday 26 January, the central pressure of the depression was 932 millibars and it was sitting some 1,800 nautical miles west of the UK. It came closest to the UK during the day yesterday with a central pressure of 950 millibars but was still around 600 nautical miles to the north west of Scotland.

Satellite image from 26 January 2013

Satellite image from 26 January 2013

To put this into context, the storm that affected the UK on 3 January 2012 had a central pressure of 953 millibars but was centred right on the west coast of Scotland and brought winds in excess of 80 mph to the Central Belt and a gust of over 100 mph in Edinburgh. Property was damaged, as well as trees, and there was disruption on the road network and with ferry crossings. Power supplies were also affected significantly.

The storm in January 2012 was therefore much more disruptive and severe than any wet and windy weather we have seen so far this year.

Much of the recent severe weather has been attributed to the phrase “Weather Bomb”, which is not a perfect meteorological term but is defined as an intense low pressure system with a central pressure that falls 24 millibars in a 24-hour period. This happened to the depression over the Atlantic during the weekend but as it was miles away from the UK its impacts were minimal. A better description can be more directly linked to the meteorological phenomena known as rapid cyclogenesis. This is where dry air from the stratosphere flows into an area of low pressure. This causes air within the depression to rise very quickly and increases its rotation, which in turn deepens the pressure and creates a more vigorous storm.








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