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Geosciences LibreTexts

10.8: Atmospheric Movements and Flow

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  • Atmospheric Pressure and Winds

    When winds converge at a low pressure center, the air (and water vapor) rises. When winds converge at a high pressure center, the air spreads away from the high and the air above sinks to replace it.A few basic principles go a long way toward explaining how and why air moves: Warm air rising creates a low pressure zone at the ground. Air from the surrounding area is sucked into the space left by the rising air. Air flows horizontally at top of the troposphere; horizontal flow is called advection. The air cools until it descends. Where it reaches the ground, it creates a high pressure zone. Air flowing from areas of high pressure to low pressure creates winds. Warm air can hold more moisture than cold air. Air moving at the bases of the three major convection cells in each hemisphere north and south of the equator creates the global wind belts.

    Within the troposphere are convection cells. Air that moves horizontally between high and low pressure zones makes wind. The greater the pressure difference between the pressure zones the faster the wind flow.

    Convection in the atmosphere creates the planet’s weather. When warm air rises and cools in a low pressure zone, it may not be able to hold all the water it contains as vapor. Some water vapor may condense to form clouds or precipitation. When cool air descends, it warms. Since it can then hold more moisture, the descending air will evaporate water on the ground. Air moving between large high and low pressure systems creates the global wind belts that profoundly affect regional climate. Smaller pressure systems create localized winds that affect the weather and climate of a local area.

    Local Winds

    Local winds result from air moving between small low and high pressure systems. High and low pressure cells are created by a variety of conditions. Some local winds have very important effects on the weather and climate of some regions.

    Land and Sea Breezes

    First warm air over the coast rises from a thermal low. The cooler air over the sea is pulled in to fill the now “empty space.” This causes the coastal warm air to further rise. This becomes a high pressure zone and the air cools, eventually becoming a low pressure zone as the cool air sinks above the sea.
    Formation of the sea breeze

    Since water has a very high specific heat, it maintains its temperature well. So water heats and cools more slowly than land. If there is a large temperature difference between the surface of the sea (or a large lake) and the land next to it, high and low pressure regions form. This creates local winds.

    Sea breezes blow from the cooler ocean over the warmer land in summer. Where is the high pressure zone and where is the low pressure zone?

    Sea breezes blow at about 10 to 20 km (6 to 12 miles) per hour and lower air temperature much as 5 to 10 degrees C (9 to 18 degrees F).

    Land breezes blow from the land to the sea in winter. Where is the high pressure zone and where is the low pressure zone? Some warmer air from the ocean rises and then sinks on land, causing the temperature over the land to become warmer.

    Land and sea breezes create the pleasant climate for which Southern California is known. The effect of land and sea breezes are felt only about 50 to 100 km (30 to 60 miles) inland. This same cooling and warming effect occurs to a smaller degree during day and night, because land warms and cools faster than the ocean.

    Monsoonal Winds

    Monsoon winds are larger scale versions of land and sea breezes; they blow from the sea onto the land in summer and from the land onto the sea in winter. Monsoon winds are occur where very hot summer lands are next to the sea. Thunderstorms are common during monsoons.The most important monsoon in the world occurs each year over the Indian subcontinent. More than two billion residents of India and southeastern Asia depend on monsoon rains for their drinking and irrigation water. Back in the days of sailing ships, seasonal shifts in the monsoon winds carried goods back and forth between India and Africa.

    Map showing average onset (monsoon arrival) dates and wind directions prevalent during India's southwest summer monsoon.
    Click for a larger image.

    Mountain and Valley Breezes

    Temperature differences between mountains and valleys create mountain and valley breezes. During the day, air on mountain slopes is heated more than air at the same elevation over an adjacent valley. As the day progresses, warm air rises and draws the cool air up from the valley, creating a valley breeze. At night the mountain slopes cool more quickly than the nearby valley, which causes a mountain breeze to flow downhill.

    Katabatic winds

    Katabatic winds move up and down slopes, but they are stronger mountain and valley breezes. Katabatic winds form over a high land area, like a high plateau. The plateau is usually surrounded on almost all sides by mountains. In winter, the plateau grows cold. The air above the plateau grows cold and sinks down from the plateau through gaps in the mountains. Wind speeds depend on the difference in air pressure over the plateau and over the surroundings. Katabatic winds form over many continental areas. Extremely cold katabatic winds blow over Antarctica and Greenland.

    Sketch of the generation of katabatic winds in Antarctica

    Chinook Winds

    A wind flows over a steep mountain.Chinook winds, also called Foehn winds, develop when air is forced up over a mountain range. This takes place, for example, when the westerly winds bring air from the Pacific Ocean over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. As the relatively warm, moist air rises over the windward side of the mountains, it cools and contracts. If the air is humid, it may form clouds and drop rain or snow. When the air sinks on the leeward side of the mountains, it forms a high pressure zone. The windward side of a mountain range is the side that receives the wind; the leeward side is the side where air sinks.The descending air warms and creates strong, dry winds. Chinook winds can raise temperatures more than 20oC (36oF) in an hour and they rapidly decrease humidity. Snow on the leeward side of the mountain disappears melts quickly. If precipitation falls as the air rises over the mountains, the air will be dry as it sinks on the leeward size. This dry, sinking air causes a rainshadow effect, which creates many of the world’s deserts.

    Santa Ana Winds

    Santa Ana winds are created in the late fall and winter when the Great Basin east of the Sierra Nevada cools, creating a high pressure zone. The high pressure forces winds downhill and in a clockwise direction (because of Coriolis). The air pressure rises, so temperature rises and humidity falls. The winds blow across the Southwestern deserts and then race downhill and westward toward the ocean. Air is forced through canyons cutting the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains.

    The Santa Ana winds often arrive at the end of California’s long summer drought season. The hot, dry winds dry out the landscape even more. If a fire starts, it can spread quickly, causing large-scale devastation.

    This map illustration shows a characteristic high-pressure area centered over the Great Basin, with the clockwise anticyclone wind flow out of the high-pressure center giving rise to a Santa Ana wind event as the airmass flows through the passes and canyons of southern California, manifesting as a dry northeasterly wind.

    Desert Winds

    A large sandstorm blowing in over a parking lot in Iraq. The sand cloud is three or four times the height of the army trucks parked in the lot.High summer temperatures on the desert create high winds, which are often associated with monsoon storms. Desert winds pick up dust because there is not as much vegetation to hold down the dirt and sand. A haboob forms in the downdrafts on the front of a thunderstorm. The image on the left if of a nabob. Dust devils, also called whirlwinds, form as the ground becomes so hot that the air above it heats and rises. Air flows into the low pressure and begins to spin. Dust devils are small and short-lived but they may cause damage.

    On July 5, 2011 Phoenix Arizona experienced a large-scale haboob that was captured by many people using their smartphones and cameras. Watch this video of that event.


    This video shows a giant duet devil:

    Thumbnail for the embedded element "Running Into a Giant Dust Devil"

    A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


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    • Driving into AZ Haboob Dust Storm HD. Authored by: maholler2010. Located at: License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License
    • Running Into a Giant Dust Devil. Authored by: JadyLester. Located at: License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License
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