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understanding the jet streams

'Jet streams' were first discovered during the second world war. Pilots were regularly flying between Britain and the United States of America and they noticed that it was quicker to fly to the United Kingdom and reported tailwinds of over 100 miles per hour. These winds blew in narrow ribbons and were named 'jet streams'.

Nowadays jet streams are closely monitored and forecast. Pilots want to know where to find them as their added push will save them time and fuel, and therefore money. But jet streams are not only important to pilots. When Breitling Orbiter 3 became the first balloon to fly non-stop around the world it used knowledge of the position of the jet streams to speed up its flight.


They are relatively narrow bands of strong wind in the upper levels of the atmosphere. The winds blows from west to east in jet streams but the flow often shifts to the north and south. Jet streams follow the boundaries between hot and cold air. Since these hot and cold air boundaries are most pronounced in winter, jet streams are the strongest for both the northern and southern hemisphere winters.

Since the earth rotates, the axis is tilted, and there is more land mass in the northern hemisphere than in the southern hemisphere, there are three global circulations...

  1. Hadley cell - Low latitude air movement toward the equator that with heating, rises vertically, with poleward movement in the upper atmosphere. This forms a convection cell that dominates tropical and sub-tropical climates.

  2. Ferrel cell - A mid-latitude mean atmospheric circulation cell for weather named by Ferrel in the 19th century. In this cell the air flows poleward and eastward near the surface and equatorward and westward at higher levels.

  3. Polar cell - Air rises, diverges, and travels toward the poles. Once over the poles, the air sinks, forming the polar highs. At the surface air diverges outward from the polar highs. Surface winds in the polar cell are easterly (polar easterlies).

The earth's rotation is also responsible for the jet stream to move from West to East. The motion of the air is not directly north and south but is affected by the momentum the air has as it moves away from the equator. The reason has to do with momentum and how fast a location on or above the Earth moves relative to the Earth's axis.

Your speed relative to the Earth's axis depends on your location. Someone standing on the equator is moving much faster than someone standing on a 45 latitude line. In the graphic (left) the person at the position on the equator arrives at the yellow line sooner than the other two. Someone standing on a pole is not moving at all (except that he or she would be slowly spinning). The speed of the rotation is great enough to cause you to weigh one pound less at the equator than you would at the north or south pole.

The momentum the air has as it travels around the earth is conserved, which means as the air that's over the equator starts moving toward one of the poles, it keeps its eastward motion constant. The Earth below the air, however, moves slower as that air travels toward the poles. The result is that the air moves faster and faster in an easterly direction (relative to the Earth's surface below) the farther it moves from the equator.

In addition, with the three-cell circulations mentioned previously, the regions around 30 N/S and 50-60 N/S are areas where temperature changes are the greatest. As the difference in temperature between the two locations increase, the strength of the wind increases. Therefore, the regions around 30 N/S and 50-60 N/S are also regions where the wind, in the upper atmosphere, is the strongest.

The 50-60 N/S region is where the polar jet located with the subtropical jet located around 30N. Jet streams vary in height of four to eight miles and can reach speeds of more than 275 mph. The actual appearence of jet streams result from the complex interaction between many variables - such as the location of high and low pressure systems, warm and cold air, and seasonal changes. They meander around the globe, dipping and rising in altitude/latitude, splitting at times and forming eddies, and even disappearing altogether to appear somewhere else.

Jet streams also "follow the sun" in that as the sun's elevation increases each day in the spring, the jet streams shifts north moving into Canada by Summer. As Autumn approaches and the sun's elevation decreases, the jet stream moves south into the United States helping to bring cooler air to the country.