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Pressure and Wind

Atmospheric pressure and wind are both significant
controlling factors of Earths weather and climate.

Although these two physical variables may at first glance

appear to be quite different, they are in fact closely

Wind exists because of horizontal and vertical differences

(gradients) in pressure, yielding a correspondence that
often makes it possible to use the pressure distribution as
an alternative representation of atmospheric motions.

Atmospheric Pressure and Wind

Pressure is the force exerted on a unit area, and
atmospheric pressure is equivalent to the weight of air
above a given area on Earths surface or within
its atmosphere.

This pressure is usually expressed in millibars (mb; 1 mb

equals 1,000 dynes per square cm) or in kilopascals (kPa;
1 kPa equals 10,000 dynes per square cm).

Distributions of pressure on a map are depicted by a
series of curved lines called isobars, each of which
connects points of equal pressure.

Isobar, line on a weather map of constant barometric

pressure drawn on a given reference surface.

The isobaric pattern on a constant-height surface is

extremely useful in weather forecasting because of the
close association between pressure and weather.

Regions of low pressure at sea level tend to be areas of
bad weather, especially in winter.

At higher elevations the wind blows approximately

parallel to the isobars, with low pressure to the left in the
Northern Hemisphere and to the right in the Southern
Hemisphere with respect to the direction of air
movement; the closer together the isobars are, the
stronger the wind speed.

Only sea-level pressure patterns are routinely used
in meteorology.

At higher elevations pressure itself is used to define the

reference surface upon which contours of the height
above sea level are drawn; dynamically, the height
contours of a constant pressure surface are
completely analogous to the isobars of a constant-height

At sea level the mean pressure is about 1,000 mb (100
kPa), varying by less than 5 percent from this value at
any given location or time.

Since charts of atmospheric pressure often represent
average values over several days, pressure features that
are relatively consistent day after day emerge, while
more transient, short-lived features are removed.

Those that remain are known as semipermanent

pressure centres and are the source regions for major,
relatively uniform bodies of air known as air masses.

Warm, moist maritime tropical (mT) air forms over
tropical and subtropical ocean waters in association with
the high-pressure regions prominent there. Cool, moist
maritime polar (mP) air, on the other hand, forms over
the colder subpolar ocean waters just south and east of
the large, winter oceanic low-pressure regions.

Over the continents, cold dry continental polar (cP) air
and extremely cold dry continental arctic (cA) air
forms in the high-pressure regions that are especially
pronounced in winter, while hot dry continental
tropical (cT) air forms over hot desertlike continental
domains in summer in association with low-pressure
areas, which are sometimes called heat lows.

It is clear that sea-level pressure is dominated by closed
high- and low-pressure centres, which are largely caused
by differential surface heating between low and high
latitudes and between continental and oceanic regions.

High pressure tends to be amplified over the colder
surface features.
Second, because of seasonal changes in surface heating,
the pressure centres exhibit seasonal changes in their
For example, the Siberian High, Aleutian Low,
and Icelandic Low that are so prominent in the winter
virtually disappear in summer as the continental regions
warm relative to surrounding bodies of water. At the same
time, the Pacific and Atlantic highs amplify and migrate

At altitudes well above Earths surface, the monthly
average pressure distributions show much less tendency
to form in closed centres but rather appear as quasi-
concentric circles around the poles.
This more symmetrical appearance reflects the dominant
role of meridional (north-south) differences in radiative
heating and cooling.
Excess heating in tropical latitudes, in contrast to polar
areas, produces higher pressure at upper levels in the
tropics as thunderstorms transfer air to higher levels.

In addition, the greater heating/cooling contrast in winter
yields stronger pressure differences during this season.

Perfect symmetry between the tropics and the poles is

interrupted by wavelike atmospheric disturbances
associated with migratory and semipermanent high- and
low-pressure surface weather systems.

These weather systems are most pronounced over the

Northern Hemisphere, with its more prominent land-
ocean contrasts and orographic (high-elevation) features.

The changing wind patterns are governed
by Newtons second law of motion, which states that the
sum of the forces acting on a body equals the product of
the mass of that body and the acceleration caused by those
forces. The basic relationship between atmospheric pressure
and horizontal wind is revealed by disregarding friction and
any changes in wind direction and speed to yield the
mathematical relationship

where u is the zonal wind speed (+ eastward), vthe meridional

wind speed (+ northward), f = 2 sin (Coriolis parameter),
the angular velocity of Earths rotation, the latitude, the air
density (mass per unit volume), p the pressure, and x and y the
distances toward the east and north, respectively.

Relationship of wind to pressure and

governing forces
This simple non-accelerating flow is known
as geostrophic balance and yields a motion field known
as the geostrophic wind.

The pressure-gradient force expresses the tendency of
pressure differences to effectuate air movement from
higher to lower pressure.

The Coriolis force arises because the air motions are

observed on a rotating nearly spherical body.

The total motion of a parcel of air has two parts:

(1) the motion relative to Earth as if the planet were fixed,

(2) the motion given to the parcel of air by the planets

When the atmosphere is viewed from a fixed point in
space, Earths rotation is apparent. An observer in space
would witness the total motion of the atmosphere.
Conversely, an observer on the ground sees and measures
only the relative motion of the atmosphere, because he is
also rotating and cannot see directly the rotational motion
applied by Earth. Instead, the observer on the ground sees
the effect of the rotation as a deviation applied to the
relative motion. The quantity that describes this deviation
is the Coriolis force. Because the Coriolis force results
from a ground-level frame of reference on a rotating
planet, it is not a true force.

Wind speed increases as the distance between isobars
decreases (or pressure gradient increases).
Curvature (i.e., changes in wind direction) can be added
to this model with relative ease in a flow representation
known as the gradient wind.
The basic wind-pressure relationships, however, remain
qualitatively the same. Of greatest importance is the fact
that large-scale, observed winds tend to behave much as
the geostrophic- or gradient-flow models predict in most
of the atmosphere.