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The Steering of Dorian

By: Lee Grenci 3:54 PM GMT on July 26, 2013

The 5 A.M. discussion from the National Hurricane Center indicated that Tropical Storm Dorian "lost organization" as it encountered southwesterly wind shear and middle- to upper-tropospheric dry air (one of the traditions I learned from the late John Hope was to never use "he" or "she" to describe a named tropical cyclone). NHC's discussion also focused on low- to middle-tropospheric winds associated with the the Atlantic subtropical high-pressure system (06Z GFS model analysis of 700-mb heights early this morning) as the primary steering currents for Tropical Storm Dorian (see the 06Z GFS model analysis of 700-mb heights and 700-mb streamlines below (larger image). At the time, Dorian was moving to the west-northwest at 17 knots.

The 06Z GFS model analysis of 700-mb heights and 700-mb streamlines on July 26, 2013. 700-mb wind speeds are color-coded in knots. Larger image. Courtesy of Penn State.

When I was a young forecaster (a long, long time ago), I typically looked at mid-tropospheric winds as a proxy for the general movement of tropical cyclones. That's because mid-tropospheric winds serve as a rough approximation for the mean airflow in the troposphere. More specifically, old timers like me looked at the winds between 700 mb and 500 mb at a radius of approximately five to seven degrees latitude from the center of the storm (one degree latitude equals 60 nautical miles). As it turns out, winds in the layer from 700 mb to 500 mb often tend to correlate best with the movement of tropical cyclones (at these radii, environmental winds are essentially unaltered by the circulation associated with the tropical cyclone).

Obviously, my approach as a young forecaster was old school. Nonetheless, my simple method had some merit. Indeed, research has shown that a deep-layer mean flow (between 1000 mb to 100 mb, for example) can be used as a tool to assess steering currents (this technique captures the spirit of my old-school approach).

Subtropical highs are not the only features that steer tropical cyclones. Indeed, mid-latitude systems (500-mb troughs, for example) can also steer tropical cyclones as they move poleward from the Tropics. At times, two tropical cyclones can steer each other, assuming that they're close enough for their circulations to interact (the Fujiwhara effect...a topic for a future blog). Finally, tropical cyclones contribute to their own steering, especially when steering currents are rather weak (the Beta effect, which is fodder for another future blog).

The variation of the steering layers for tropical cyclones with minimum central pressure. Larger image. Courtesy of CIMSS and Dr. Chris Velden.

That's all well and good, Grenci, but why did NHC specifically reference "low- to mid-tropospheric winds in their 5 A.M. discussion today? Experience gained from the careful observations of operational forecasters eventually prompted further research aimed at establishing the connection between the minimum pressure of a tropical cyclone and the corresponding depth of the steering layer. The bar graph above (larger image), which displays the minimum pressure of tropical cyclones versus the depth of their steering layers in the Atlantic basin, supports the notion that the steering layer for a tropical depression is shallower and resides lower in the troposphere. In contrast, the steering layer for strong hurricanes is much deeper. The simple physical connection for you to take away after reading my blog is that a weak tropical cyclone (like Dorian) is usually associated with a shallow vortex. Thus, the mean wind in a correspondingly shallow and low-level layer serves as the steering current. As a general rule, the deeper the vortex, the deeper the layer mean that steers the tropical cyclone.

The 09Z analysis of the streamlines designating the mean wind in the layer from 850 mb to 700 mb on July 26, 2013. Larger image. Courtesy of CIMSS.

To get a better sense for the movement of Dorian, focus your attention on the first layer on the left of the bar graph above (central pressure between 1000 mb and 1010 mb). The steering current for Dorian and other similarly weak tropical storms boils down to the mean wind between 850 mb (roughly 5000 feet) and 700 mb (10000 feet). The 09Z analysis from CIMSS (above; larger image) indicates the streamlines of the mean wind in the layer between 850 mb and 700 mb. Wind speeds are color-coded in knots.

At the other end of the spectrum, note the deep steering layers for strong tropical cyclones whose central pressures are lower than 940 mb or range from 940 mb to 949 mb.

I should point out that these results do not include the impact of the Beta effect on the movement of a tropical cyclone. Moreover, other factors such as season, latitude, easterly versus westerly environmental flow, the rates at which the intensity of tropical cyclones changes with time, etc., probably can skew these results a bit, but, as a general rule, the bar graph above will get you in the ballpark in all the ocean basins.

We've come a long way since I was a young forecaster.


Hurricane Tropical Meteorology

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.