Illustration of a microburst. Note the downward motion of the air until it hits ground level. It then spreads outward in all directions. The wind regime in a microburst is opposite to that of a tornado.
Tree damage from a downburst

A microburst is a very localized column of sinking air, producing damaging divergent and straight-line winds at the surface that are similar to, but distinguishable from, tornadoes, which generally have convergent damage. There are two types of microbursts: wet microbursts and dry microbursts. They go through three stages in their life cycle: the downburst, outburst, and cushion stages. The scale and suddenness of a microburst makes it a great danger to aircraft due to the low-level wind shear caused by its gust front, with several fatal crashes having been attributed to the phenomenon over the past several decades.

A microburst often has high winds that can knock over fully grown trees. They usually last for a duration of a couple of seconds to several minutes.


History of term

The term was defined by senior weather expert Tetsuya Theodore Fujita as affecting an area 4 km (2.5 mi) in diameter or less, distinguishing them as a type of downburst and apart from common wind shear which can encompass greater areas.[1] Fujita also coined the term macroburst for downbursts larger than 4 km (2.5 mi), a scale of size known as the mesoscale.[2]

A distinction can be made between a wet microburst which consists of precipitation and a dry microburst which consists of virga.[3] They generally are formed by precipitation-cooled air rushing to the surface, but they perhaps also could be powered from the high speed winds of the jet stream deflected to the surface in a thunderstorm (see downburst).

Microbursts are recognized as capable of generating wind speeds higher than 75 m/s (168 mph; 270 km/h).

Dry microburst schematic from NWS

Dry microbursts

When rain falls below cloud base or is mixed with dry air, it begins to evaporate and this evaporation process cools the air. The cool air descends and accelerates as it approaches the ground. When the cool air approaches the ground, it spreads out in all directions and this divergence of the wind is the signature of the microburst. High winds spread out in this type of pattern showing little or no curvature are known as straight-line winds.[4]

Dry microbursts, produced by high based thunderstorms that generate little surface rainfall, occur in environments characterized by a thermodynamic profile exhibiting an inverted-V at thermal and moisture profile, as viewed on a Skew-T log-P thermodynamic diagram. Wakimoto (1985) developed a conceptual model (over the High Plains of the United States) of a dry microburst environment that comprised three important variables: mid-level moisture, a deep and dry adiabatic lapse rate in the sub-cloud layer, and low surface relative humidity.

Wet microburst schematic from NWS

Wet microbursts

Wet microbursts are downbursts accompanied by significant precipitation at the surface which are warmer than their environment (Wakimoto, 1998).[5] These downbursts rely more on the drag of precipitation for downward acceleration of parcels than negative buoyancy which tend to drive "dry" microbursts. As a result, higher mixing ratios are necessary for these downbursts to form (hence the name "wet" microbursts). Melting of ice, particularly hail, appears to play an important role in downburst formation (Wakimoto and Bringi, 1988), especially in the lowest one kilometer above ground level (Proctor, 1989). These factors, among others, make forecasting wet microbursts a difficult task.

Characteristic Dry Microburst Wet Microburst
Location of Highest Probability within the United States Midwest/West Southeast
Precipitation Little or none Moderate or heavy
Cloud Bases As high as 500 mb Usually below 850 mb
Features below Cloud Base Virga Shafts of strong precipitation reaching the ground
Primary Catalyst Evaporative cooling Downward transport of higher momentum
Environment below Cloud Base Deep dry layer/low relative humidity/dry adiabatic lapse rate Shallow dry layer/high relative humidity/moist adiabatic lapse rate
Surface Outflow Pattern Omni-directional Gusts of the direction of the mid-level wind

Development stages of microbursts

The evolution of downbursts is broken down into three stages: the contact stage, the outburst stage and the cushion stage.

Physical processes of dry and wet microbursts


Simple explanation

In the case of a wet microburst, the atmosphere is warm and humid in the lower levels and dry aloft. As a result, when thunderstorms develop, heavy rain is produced but some of the rain evaporates in the drier air aloft. As a result the air aloft is cooled thereby causing it to sink and spread out rapidly as it hits the ground. The result can be both strong damaging winds and heavy rainfall occurring in the same area. Wet downbursts can be identified visually by such features as a shelf cloud, while on radar they sometimes produce bow echoes. In the case of a dry microburst, the atmosphere is warm but dry in the lower levels and moist aloft. Thus when showers and thunderstorms develop, most of the rain evaporates before reaching the ground.[7]

Basic physical processes using simplified buoyancy equations

Start by using the vertical momentum equation

{dw\over dt} = -{1\over\rho} {\partial p\over\partial z}-g

By decomposing the variables into a basic state and a perturbation, defining the basic states, and using the Ideal Gas Law (p = ρRTv), then the equation can be written in the form

B \equiv -{\rho^\prime\over\bar\rho}g = g{T^\prime_v - \bar T_v \over \bar T_v}

where B is used to denote buoyancy. Note that the virtual temperature correction usually is rather small and to a good approximation, it can be ignored when computing buoyancy. Finally, the effects of precipitation loading on the vertical motion are parameterized by including a term that decreases buoyancy as the liquid water mixing ratio (\ell) increases, leading to the final form of the parcel's momentum equation:

{dw^\prime\over dt} = {1\over\bar\rho}{\partial p^\prime\over\partial z} + B - g\ell

The first term is the effect of perturbation pressure gradients on vertical motion. In some storms this term has a large effect on updrafts (Rotunno and Klemp, 1982) but there is not much reason to believe it has much of an impact on downdrafts (at least to a first approximation) and therefore will be ignored.

The second term is the effect of buoyancy on vertical motion. Cleary, in the case of microbursts, one expects to find that B is negative meaning the parcel is cooler than its environment. This cooling typically takes place as a result of phase changes (evaporation, melting, and sublimation). Precipitation particles that are small, but are in great quantity, promote a maximum contribution to cooling and, hence, to creation of negative buoyancy. The major contribution to this process is from evaporation.

The last term is the effect of water loading. Whereas evaporation is promoted by large numbers of small droplets, it only takes a few large drops to contribute substantially to the downward acceleration of air parcels. This term is associated with storms having high precipitation rates. Comparing the effects of water loading to those associated with buoyance, if a parcel has a liguid water mixing ration of 1.0 gkg−1, this is roughly equivalent to about 0.3 K of negative buoyancy; the latter is a large (but not extreme) value. Therefore, in general terms, negative buoyancy is typically the major contributor to downdrafts.[7]

Negative vertical motion associated only with buoyancy

Using pure "parcel theory" results in a prediction of the maximum downdraft of

-w_{\rm max} = \sqrt{2\times\hbox{NAPE}}

where NAPE is the Negative Available Potential Energy,

\hbox{NAPE} = -\int_{\rm SFC}^{\rm LFS} B\,dz

and where LFS denotes the Level of Free Sink for a descending parcel and SFC denotes the surface. This means that the maximum downward motion is associated with the integrated negative buoyancy. Even a relatively modest negative buoyancy can result in a substantial downdraft if it is maintained over a relatively large depth. A downward speed of 25 m/s results from the relatively modest NAPE value of 312.5 m²s−2. To a first approximation, the maximum gust is roughly equal to the maximum downdraft speed.[7]

A photograph of the surface curl soon after a microburst impacted the surface

Danger to aircraft

The scale and suddenness of a microburst makes it a great danger to aircraft, particularly those at low altitude which are taking off and landing. The following are some fatal crashes and/or aircraft incidents that have been attributed to microbursts in the vicinity of airports:

A microburst often causes aircraft to crash when they are attempting to land (the above-mentioned BOAC and Pan Am flights are notable exceptions). The microburst is an extremely powerful gust of air that, once hitting the ground, spreads in all directions. As the aircraft is coming in to land, the pilots try to slow the plane to an appropriate speed. When the microburst hits, the pilots will see a large spike in their airspeed, caused by the force of the headwind created by the microburst. A pilot inexperienced with microbursts would try to decrease the speed. The plane would then travel through the microburst, and fly into the tailwind, causing a sudden decrease in the amount of air flowing across the wings. The decrease in airflow over the wings of the aircraft causes a drop in the amount of lift produced. This decrease in lift combined with a strong downward flow of air can cause the thrust required to remain at altitude to exceed what is available.[8]

Danger to buildings

  • On September 8, 2011, at 5:01 PM, a dry microburst hit Nellis AFB, Nevada causing several aircraft shelters to collapse. Multiple aircraft were damaged and eight people were injured.[10]
  • On September 22, 2010 in the Hegewisch neighborhood of Chicago, a wet microburst hit, causing severe localized damage and localized power outages, including fallen-tree impacts into at least four homes. No fatalities were reported. [11]
  • On September 16, 2010, just after 5:30 PM, a wet macroburst [a more extensive downburst than a microburst] with winds of 125mph hit parts of Central Queens in New York City, causing extensive damage to trees, buildings and vehicles in an area 8 miles long and 5 miles wide. Approximately 3,000 trees were knocked down by some reports. There was one fatality when a tree fell onto a car on the Grand Central Parkway. [12][13]
  • On June 24, 2010, shortly after 4:30 PM, a wet microburst hit the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. Field reports and damage assessments show that Charlottesville experienced numerous down bursts during the storm, with wind estimates at over 75 miles per hour. In a matter of minutes, trees and downed power lines littered the roadways. A number of houses were hit by trees. Immediately after the storm, up to 60,000 Dominion Power customers in Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County were without power. [14]
  • On June 11, 2010, around 3:00 AM, a wet microburst hit a neighborhood in southwestern Sioux Falls, SD. It caused major damage to four homes, all of which were occupied. No injuries were reported. Roofs were blown off of garages and walls were flattened by the estimated 100 mph winds. Cost of repairs could be $500,000 or more. [15]
  • On May 2, 2009, the lightweight steel and mesh building in Irving, Texas used for practice by the Dallas Cowboys football team was flattened by a microburst, according to the National Weather Service.[16]
  • On March 12, 2006, a microburst hit Lawrence, Kansas. 60 percent of the University of Kansas campus buildings sustained some form of damage from the storm. Preliminary estimates put the cost of repairs at between $6 million and $7 million.[17]
Strong microburst winds flip a several-ton shipping container up the side of a hill, Vaughan Ontario, Canada

See also



  1. ^ Glossary of Meteorology. Microburst. Retrieved on 2008-07-30.
  2. ^ Glossary of Meteorology. Macroburst. Retrieved on 2008-07-30.
  3. ^ Fernando Caracena, Ronald L. Holle, and Charles A. Doswell III. Microbursts: A Handbook for Visual Identification. Retrieved on 2008-07-09.
  4. ^ Glossary of Meteorology. Straight-line wind. Retrieved on 2008-08-01.
  5. ^ * Fujita, T.T. (1985). "The Downburst, microburst and macroburst". SMRP Research Paper 210, 122 pp.
  6. ^ University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign. Microbursts. Retrieved on 2008-08-04.
  7. ^ a b c CHARLES A. DOSWELL III. Extreme Convective Windstorms: Current Understanding and Research. Retrieved on 2008-08-04.
  8. ^ a b c d NASA Langley Air Force Base. Making the Skies Safer From Windshear. Retrieved on 2006-10-22.
  9. ^ Aviation Safety Network. Damage Report. Retrieved on 2008-08-01.
  10. ^ http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2011/sep/08/8-injured-nellis-afb-when-aircraft-shelters-collap/
  11. ^ http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/2010/09/storm-front-leaves-damage-in-its-wake.html
  12. ^ Daily News (New York). http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2010/09/17/2010-09-17_national_weather_service_confirms_that_two_tornadoes_touched_down_in_new_york_ci.html. 
  13. ^ http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local-beat/Days-After-Tornadoes-All-Power-Restored-to-Storm-Battered-103271949.html
  14. ^ http://www.newsplex.com/news/headlines/97104629.html and http://www.nbc29.com/Global/story.asp?S=12705577
  15. ^ http://www.keloland.com/news/news/NewsDetail7807.cfm?ID=101172
  16. ^ Gasper, Christopher L. (May 6, 2009). "Their view on matter: Patriots checking practice facility". The Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/sports/football/patriots/articles/2009/05/06/their_view_on_matter/. Retrieved 2009-05-12. 
  17. ^ "One year after microburst, recovery progresses" KU.edu. Retrieved 21 July 2009.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Microburst —   [ maɪkrəʊbəːst] der, (s)/ s, amerikanische Bezeichnung für eine Fallbö mit geringem Durchmesser (maximal etwa 5 km), die den Start oder Landevorgang von Flugzeugen erheblich gefährden kann. Innerhalb einer kurzen Flugstrecke ist dabei ein… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • microburst — [mī′krō bʉrst΄] n. a type of localized downdraft, often associated with thunderstorms, producing very strong, short lived wind shears …   English World dictionary

  • microburst — The strong downdraft that spreads horizontally just above the ground to form a sharply defined gust front. An aircraft approaching this microburst or gust front may encounter a headwind followed by a strong downdraft and finally end up with a… …   Aviation dictionary

  • Microburst — Nasser Downburst in Gestalt eines Niederschlagsvorhangs mit Ausfließen am Boden Ein Downburst ist eine schwere Fallböe, die meist bei Gewittern auftritt, aber auch bei Schauern vorkommen kann. Hierfür sind zwei verschiedene Mechanismen… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • microburst — /muy kreuh berrst /, n. Meteorol. an intense, localized downdraft of air that spreads on the ground, causing rapid changes in wind direction and speed; a localized downburst. [1980 85; MICRO + BURST] * * * ▪ meteorology  pattern of intense winds… …   Universalium

  • Microburst — Mi|cro|burst [ maikrəubə:st] der; [s], s <aus gleichbed. engl. amerik. microburst zu engl. micro (vgl. ↑mikro...) u. burst »Bruch, Ausbruch«> den Start od. Landevorgang von Flugzeugen gefährdende Fallbö (Luftf.) …   Das große Fremdwörterbuch

  • microburst — noun Date: 1981 a violent short lived localized downdraft that creates extreme wind shears at low altitudes and is usually associated with thunderstorms …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • microburst — noun A strong downdraft, of less than 2.5 miles in diameter, that can cause damaging winds …   Wiktionary

  • microburst — n. violent and strong localized air current that hits the ground and creates extreme wind shears at low altitudes (generally associated with thunderstorms) …   English contemporary dictionary

  • microburst — noun a sudden, powerful, localized air current, especially a downdraught …   English new terms dictionary