2 minute read

Jet Stream

The jet stream is a narrow, fast, upper atmospheric wind current, flowing at high altitudes around Earth. Although often erroneously applied to all upper-level winds, by definition jet stream wind speeds are in excess of 57 MPH (92 km/h). The jet stream may extend for thousands of miles around the world, but it is only a few hundred miles wide, and usually less than a mile thick.

Undulating jet stream movements often greatly influence storm formation and weather changes. Research sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) culminated in a 2001 report that also correlated solar activity, jet stream migration, and precipitation patterns over North America.

The wind speeds in the core of the stream sometimes can reach 200–300 MPH (322-483 km/h). These wind speeds within the jet stream that are faster than the surrounding regions are called jet streaks. On average, the jet stream flows from east to west, but it often meanders into northern or southern moving loops. Jet streams occur in both hemispheres, but the Southern Hemisphere jet streams show less daily variability. Jet streams can be detected by drawing isothachs (the lines connecting points of equal wind speed) on a weather map.

Jet streams form in the upper troposphere, between 6 and 9 mi (10 and 14 km) high, at breaks in the tropopause, where the tropopause changes height dramatically. Jet streams are located at the boundaries of warm and cold air, above areas with strong temperature gradients. For example, the polar front, which separates cold polar air from warmer subtropical air, has a great temperature contrast along the frontal zone, leading to a steep pressure gradient. The resulting wind is the polar jet stream at about 6 mi (10 km) high, reaching maximum wind speed in winter. Sometimes the polar jet can split into two jets, or merge with the subtropical jet, which is located at about 8 mi (13 km) high, around 30 degrees latitude. A low-level jet stream also exists above the Central Plains of the United States, causing nighttime thunderstorm formation in the summertime. Over the subtropics, there is the tropical easterly jet, at the base of the tropopause in summertime, about 15 degrees latitude over continental regions. Near the top of the stratosphere exists the stratospheric polar jet during the polar winter.

Detailed knowledge about the jet stream's location, altitude, and strength is essential not only for safe and efficient routing of aircrafts, but also for weather forecasting.

See also Atmosphere observation; Atmosphere, composition and structure; Atmospheric circulation; Global climate; Solar activity cycle; Solar illumination: Seasonal and diurnal patterns.

View of the jetstream over the Sahara Desert in Egypt. NASA/Science Photo Library. Reproduced by permission.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Intuitionist logic to Kabbalah