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Simulations and Observations of Extreme Low-Level Updrafts in Hurricane Isabel Daniel P. Stern 1 , David S. Nolan 1 , and Sim D. Aberson 2 1 Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami 2 Hurricane Research Division, AOML/NOAA Introduction

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Simulations and Observations of Extreme Low-Level Updrafts in Hurricane Isabel

Daniel P. Stern1, David S. Nolan1, and Sim D. Aberson2

1Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami

2Hurricane Research Division, AOML/NOAA


Extreme low-level updrafts have previously been found to be a ubiquitous feature of intense tropical cyclones (Stern and Aberson 2006). Herein, we demonstrate that high resolution simulations of Hurricane Isabel produce similar features, and we investigate their cause.

There are numerous unanswered questions regarding low-level updrafts within tropical cyclones. These include their origin, spatial distribution, and relationship to larger scale structure and intensity. Some studies have concluded that eyewall updrafts are generally forced by local buoyancy (Braun 2002), while others (Zhang et al. 2000) have found the forcing to be due to dynamic pressure gradient forces. Numerous studies have found the environmental vertical wind shear to be critical to the organization of updrafts within tropical cyclones (e.g. Corbosiero and Molinari 2003), with updrafts found preferentially downshear-left or left of shear, depending on the study. Other studies have also found motion-induced frictional asymmetry to be important, with updrafts located preferentially in the right-front quadrant relative to storm motion. Most of these studies were not looking at low-level updrafts in particular, however. It is possible that these features are dynamically distinct from mid/upper level updrafts, in which case their cause and the mechanisms which control their distribution may be different.

  • Evolution of a Single Extreme Updraft
  • Sensitivity to horizontal resolution and to boundary layer parameterization scheme
  • Summary

We have shown that high-resolution simulations of Hurricane Isabel are able to produce very strong low-level updrafts, which compare favorably to observations, in magnitude and spatial distribution. By tracking an individual extreme updraft at high temporal resolution, we have begun to elucidate some aspects of the complex dynamics involved in producing these features. In particular, we have demonstrated that the forcing for the tracked updraft cannot be local buoyancy. This very likely holds true for other similar simulated features, which requires that dynamic nonhydrostatic pressure gradient forces must be the forcing. While this is more difficult to demonstrate in the observations, we should note that the same rough estimate of the thermal perturbations required to generate such updrafts applies equally well. 15 m/s updrafts have been observed at and below 500 m height, and a 13.1 m/s updraft was observed at 140 m in Isabel on the 12th. Such an updraft would require a ~19 K temperature perturbation if produced by buoyancy! Therefore, the observed upsondes are also very unlikely to be driven by buoyancy.

It appears that some of the strongest simulated horizontal winds are found slightly upstream, radially outward, and below the extreme updrafts (not shown). This is consistent with the production of vertical vorticity by the updraft in a region of very strong radial shear of the mean tangential winds. The extreme low-level updrafts are potentially an important mechanism by which the strongest horizontal windspeeds in tropical cyclones are produced. This is also consistent with the strong overlap between the observed upsondes and the set of all sondes in which 90 m/s horizontal winds are found. This may have implications for the mechanism by which extreme wind damage is produced in landfalling major hurricanes.

To examine sensitivity of updraft strength to resolution we compare the simulation with 444 m resolution to one with 1.33 km resolution. To ensure that differences are dynamically meaningful, the simulations are compared on the same 1.33 km grid. Additional simulations were performed at 444 m resolution, but with the drag coefficient at 80% of its original value, and with the depth of the boundary layer reduced to 80% of its original value.

Shown to the right are plots of the vertical velocity of the strongest updrafts versus height. The resolution of the simulation is given in the legend as “1.33km” or “444m”. “d03” refers to output on the 1.33 km grid while “d04” refers to output on the 444 m grid. The upper plot is of the maximum vertical velocity anywhere in the domain, at each height, and so is not indicative of the structure of actual individual updrafts. The lower plot is of the vertical velocity at each height following the track of the strongest updraft in the domain at a height of 1.5 km. In both plots, data are averaged over the hourly output at each height.

  • The updrafts are substantially stronger when simulated at higher resolution.
  • The height at which the maximum vertical velocities are found is lower for the simulation at higher resolution, with a sharper peak. When following individual features, the heights of the maximum low-level updrafts are the same.
  • For Cd.8, the maximum vertical velocities are weakened by several m/s, while their height remains unchanged.
  • For PBL.8, the maximum vertical velocities are strengthened by several m/s, and the height of the maximum lowers by 500-750 m.
  • The height of the individual extreme updrafts is only 250 m lower in PBL.8. This difference is partly because there are some extreme 500-1000 m updrafts in PBL.8 which are not the strongest feature at 1.5 km, but that are the single strongest feature at any height.
  • A single updraft was tracked from 20 second output, from 1800:00-1813:40 UTC. The maximum intensity was 27.5 m/s at 1500 m height at 1806:20 UTC. The vertical velocity is plotted below as a function of height, tracking the maximum in space and time.

Storm Relative Trajectory of Updraft


We use WRF version 2.2 to simulate Hurricane Isabel (2003) from 00Z 12th until 00Z 14th. The initial and lateral boundary conditions are provided by the GFDL 6-hourly analyses. There are 40 vertical levels, equally spaced in pressure. For the control simulation we use 4 nested grids with horizontal resolutions of 12, 4, 1.33, and .444 km. The YSU PBL scheme is used, with a modified drag coefficient based on the results of Donelan et al. (2004). The WSM 5-class scheme was utilized for microphysics (Hong et al. 2004), while for radiation the RRTM longwave (Mlawer et al. 1997) and Goddard shortwave (Chou et al. 1998) schemes were used. Output was saved at hourly intervals, except 18-19Z 12th, when 20 second output was saved.

Vertical Vorticity (colored) and 10 m/s Vertical Velocity (contoured)

Intensity and Location of Simulated and Observed Updrafts

In Stern and Aberson, observed updrafts were identified as extreme when vertical velocity exceeded the terminal fall speed of the dropsonde (roughly 12-14 m/s). In our simulations, there are updrafts which exceed this criterion at almost all times, at all levels between 500 m and 5 km (which is the highest level we examine). The strongest updrafts are generally found between 1-2 km height. The maximum simulated updraft on the 12th is 28.0 m/s. By comparison the maximum observed updraft from a dropsonde in any storm is 25 m/s (Ivan). The strongest simulated downdraft is -18.7 m/s, compared to -17.7 m/s from a dropsonde in Hurricane Mitch.

In Isabel on the 12th , extreme updrafts were observed by 6 dropsondes at 3 different times. The sondes first encountered the updrafts at various heights between 140 m and 1500 m. The maximum vertical velocities were between 13.1 and 17.3 m/s. The upsondes were located 21-28 km from the center.

For comparison, the storm relative locations of all simulated updrafts exceeding 15 m/s at a height of 1 km from 15-23Z are plotted (blue) along with the upsondes (red). During this time, the observed vertical shear was from the north at 12 kt, while the storm motion was towards the west at 4 kt. The simulated and observed updrafts are located in regions favored by shear, but not motion. The simulated extreme updrafts are located 10-15 km outward from the observed, which is consistent with the simulated storm being too large by the same amount. Roughly 85% of the simulated 15 m/s updrafts below 2 km height occur in the left of shear semicircle (not shown).


D. Stern has been supported through a University of Miami Graduate Fellowship, and D. Nolan was supported by NSF grant ATM-0432551.

Vertical Velocity at 1, 3, and 5 km

The maximum vertical velocity increases from 11.9 to 27.5 m/s in just over 6 minutes, with a 9.5 m/s increase in just 3 minutes.

The updraft decays to 7.3 m/s at z=1.5 km in the following 7 minutes, with a 12 m/s decrease in the final 3 minutes.

The discontinuity evident at upper levels beginning at 1808 is indicative of the lack of a coherent updraft above these heights (it cannot be tracked properly). The updraft appears to weaken and subsequently disappear from above.

As the updraft decays, it moves inward at low levels by about 3 km over a 5 minute period.

The updraft tilts outward with and slightly cyclonically with height. At 30 km radius, the azimuthal tilt is ~250 m/km, while the radial tilt is 2-3 times as large.

7. What is the significance of these extreme low-level updrafts?


Aberson, S. D. and D. P. Stern, 2006: Extreme horizontal winds measured by dropwindsondes in hurricanes. Preprints, 27th AMS Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology, Monterey, CA, April 2006.

Braun, S. A., 2002: A cloud-resolving simulation of Hurricane Bob (1991): Storm structure and eyewall buoyancy. Mon. Wea. Rev., 130, 1573-1592.

Chou, M.-D., M. J. Suarez, C.-H. Ho, M. M.-H. Yan, and K.-T. Lee, 1998: Parameterizations for cloud overlapping and shortwave single-scattering properties for use in general circulation and cloud ensemble models. J. Climate, 11, 202-214.

Corbosiero, K. L. and J. Molinari, 2003: The relationship between storm motion, vertical wind shear, and convective asymmetries in tropical cyclones. J. Atmos. Sci., 60, 366-376.

Donelan, M. A. et al., 2004: On the limiting aerodynamic roughness of the ocean in very strong winds. GRL, 31, L18306.

Eastin, M. D., W. M. Gray, and P. G. Black, 2005: Buoyancy of convective vertical motions in the inner core of intense hurricanes. Part I: General statistics. Mon. Wea. Rev., 133, 188-208.

Hong, S.-Y., J. Dudhia, and S.-H. Chen, 2004: A revised approach to ice microphysical processes for the bulk parameterization of clouds and precipitation. Mon. Wea. Rev.,132, 103-120.

Mlawer, E. J., S. J. Taubman, P. D. Brown, M. J. Iacono, and S. A. Clough, 1997: Radiative transfer for inhomogeneous atmospheres: RRTM, a validated correlated-k model for the longwave. JGR, 102(D14), 16663-16682.

Shapiro, L. J., 1983: The asymmetric boundary layer flow under a translating hurricane. J. Atmos. Sci.,40, 1984-1998.

Stern, D. P. and S. D. Aberson, 2006: Extreme vertical winds measured by dropwindsondes in hurricanes. Preprints, 27th AMS Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology, Monterey, CA, April 2006.

Zhang, D.-L., Y. Liu, and M. K. Yau, 2000: A multiscale numerical study of Hurricane Andrew (1992). Part III: Dynamically induced vertical motion. Mon. Wea. Rev., 128, 3772-3788.

The simulated extreme low-level updrafts apparently decay rapidly with height above slightly above the inflow layer, and are essentially non-existent above 3 km. Strong updrafts of 10-20 m/s are simulated above 3 km, but these are not contiguous with the extreme low-level updrafts, are azimuthally very broad, and are apparently entirely different features. However, the location and timing of these updrafts indicates that they may be somehow dynamically related.

Shown below are radius-height cross sections through the azimuth of the maximum updraft at 750 m height. To the right is an azimuth-height cross section at the radius 1 km outward of the maximum updraft at 750 m.

  • The updrafts are tightly coupled to very intense vertical vorticity maxima, which lie just radially inward of the vertical velocity maxima. The maximum vorticity is found at the lowest level.
  • There is often a very strong downdraft located just azimuthally upstream of the extreme updrafts.
  • There are extreme horizontal wind maxima associated with the updrafts, and these are found outward of and below the strongest vertical velocities.

Tangential Wind (color), W (contoured every 2 ms-1, zero omitted)

  • Are the extreme low-level updrafts buoyant?

At a minimum, parcels must accelerate from 0-15 m/s between the surface and 500 m height. They must further accelerate to 25 m/s between 500-1000 m.

If the forcing were constant with height/time, then the acceleration from 0-15 m/s would be 15^2/(2*500)=.225 m/s^2

If buoyancy were the source of acceleration, then the virtual potential temperature perturbation would be roughly .225*300/9.81 = 6.87 K. This is very large!

Perturbations in the simulation are an order of magnitude smaller, and are not even clearly positive at the location of the updraft.

The extreme low-level updrafts therefore must be due to dynamic nonhydrostatic pressure gradient forces.

Azimuth-height cross section of W (color), Zeta (contoured every .005 s-1, negative dashed, zero omitted)

Virtual Potential Temperature (colored) and Vertical Velocity (contoured every 5 m/s starting at 10 m/s)

Zeta (color), W (contoured every 5 ms-1, zero omitted)

Tangential Wind (color), W (contoured)

Radial Wind (color), W (contoured)

11. Corresponding Author

Daniel Stern


4600 Rickenbacker Causeway

Miami, FL 33149