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NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS SR-145




Introduction to the First Edition

This glossary contains weather-related terms that may be either heard or used by severe local storm spotters or spotter groups. Its purposes are 1) to achieve some level of standardization in the definitions of the terms that are used, and 2) provide a reference from which the meanings of any terms, especially the lesser-used ones, can be found. The idea is to allow smooth and effective communication between storm spotters and forecasters, and vice versa. This is an important necessity within the severe weather warning program. Despite advances in warning and forecasting techniques (e.g., Doppler radar), the human eye will always be a vital part of any effective warning system. Storm spotters are, and always will be, an indispensable part of the severe local storm warning program.

A complete list of terms probably is impossible to arrive at, but this list is as comprehensive as possible. Certainly it is not necessary for every spotter to know the meaning of every term contained herein. In this sense, the glossary serves as a reference. In fact, many of the terms may never be heard at all; they are included here just in case, someday, they are. (By the way, inclusion of a term in this glossary does not give license to use it freely in radio or phone communication. Use of technical terms should be kept to a minimum.) But there are some terms for which the meanings are both important and specific. The important ones are preceded by asterisks; all spotters should be familiar with the definitions of these terms before taking an active role in any spotter group.

I have written the definitions in what hopefully passes as "layman's terms." They are written to be easily understood by the storm spotter, regardless of his or her meteorological background. At times I have sacrificed technical purity for simplicity, and the result may prompt a few moans from the technical purists. So be it; this glossary wasn't written for them. Many of the terms are so closely interrelated, though, that it becomes necessary to "cross-reference;" that is, to use one or more terms in the definition of another. In this glossary, all terms that are hyperlinked within a definition are terms that are defined themselves elsewhere.

The glossary is a culmination of an effort which began in the spring of 1991. Many individuals with considerable experience in severe storm research and storm spotting (or chasing) contributed to the glossary. Because of the many comments offered by these individuals, there was disagreement on the descriptions of some terms. Those terms that were identified as such as being somewhat more controversial are handled in the text by inclusion of a second paragraph in the description, which discusses any cautions or controversy regarding the use of the term.

One last word: Storm spotting is vital, but also can be very dangerous. No one should attempt storm spotting without first obtaining the proper training! This glossary in itself is not to be considered sufficient training material to qualify oneself as a spotter. Further training, usually provided by the National Weather Service, must be obtained through local agencies (usually Emergency Management) before one can be certified as a storm spotter. There is also something to be said for the so-called storm chasers, who chase storms mainly for the thrill of it (and as such are not spotters). Chasers of all levels of background and experience will no doubt find this glossary useful or at least interesting. But while I commend their enthusiasm, I must emphasize that the glossary does not condone storm chasing as a leisure activity - especially for the unprepared. Proper training and foreknowledge of the dangers are required of everyone who meets face to face with severe thunderstorms - regardless of the reason for the encounter.

National Weather Service
Norman, Oklahoma
June 1992

Introduction to the Second Edition

Based on feedback since its introduction, the "Spotter Glossary" (as this glossary has come to be known) has achieved considerable popularity among spotters - at least in the southern Plains region of "Tornado Alley." In this region, spotters actively seek as much information as possible when assessing severe weather potential on a given day. The information available often includes products which contain technical terms which are more esoteric to operational meteorology, and less familiar to those who do not pursue meteorology as a living. Examples include forecast discussions issued by local National Weather Service offices, and convective outlooks and discussions issued by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC, formerly known as SELS/NSSFC).

The question arises as to just how far one should go into the technical realm of operational meteorology when compiling a glossary like this for storm spotters. The dilemma is thus: The spotters' thirst for knowledge is admirable, but how much of the technical jargon really needs to be understood by spotters in the field?

I certainly do not want to turn the glossary into a meteorological textbook for spotters (or anyone else). That is not its purpose. Spotters have a vital role in the warning program, as do forecasters. And while interaction between them is an absolute necessity, one must be careful not to allow the two functions to overlap so much that we end up with spotters routinely generating their own forecasts and disregarding those made by the forecasters. That is not the spotter's function; spotting is.

On the other hand, I applaud the spotters who demonstrate a genuine interest in understanding the atmosphere that they are trained to observe. If they are interested in understanding what the forecaster is talking about when he/she refers to, say, "isentropic lift" or a "right-rear quad of an upper jet max", then they should have a place to find at least a general description of the unfamiliar terms. This is preferable to saying, "you don't need to know that." And those who are "turned off" by the technical jargon need not look into it further.

I have attempted to "strike a happy medium" by adding a number of meteorological terms and phrases to this edition, accompanied by general definitions. New terms to this addition, many of which were added at the suggestion of spotters, are listed below. They at least should help the spotter to understand a little more about why a particular feature is important to severe weather forecasting. Those who wish to pursue a particular issue beyond what is covered in this glossary are directed to the local library or the nearest university meteorology department.

Note that a similar dilemma arose in the first edition, regarding the inclusion of "slang" terms that are used most often by storm chasers. Again I distinguish between chasers and spotters - the former tending to observe storms for their own gratification, the latter tending to do so more for the needs of the community. The "slang" dilemma continues, but as with the first edition I have gone ahead and included many slang terms that I consider appropriate for spotter use. That means that terms like "Caprock delight" (which may be anything but a delight to residents in the path of one) will not be found herein, but that slang terms that are more-or-less universally accepted, such as "bear's cage" or "anvil crawlers," probably will appear.

Finally, modernization of the National Weather Service requires a few updates. NMC now is NCEP; SELS now is SPC. The Eta and RUC models are now here. And NEXRAD is no longer the NEXt-generation weather RADar, but is here now. The latest changes have been incorporated accordingly into the glossary.

NWS Norman Forecast Office, Norman, Oklahoma
September 1996

List of words added in the second edition


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AC - Convective outlook issued by the SPC. Abbreviation for Anticipated Convection; the term originates from the header coding [ACUS1] of the transmitted product. See SWODY1, SWODY2.

ACCAS (usually pronounced ACK-kis) - AltoCumulus CAStellanus; mid-level clouds (bases generally 8 to 15 thousand feet), of which at least a fraction of their upper parts show cumulus-type development. These clouds often are taller than they are wide, giving them a turret-shaped appearance. ACCAS clouds are a sign of instability aloft, and may precede the rapid development of thunderstorms.

Accessory Cloud - A cloud which is dependent on a larger cloud system for development and continuance. Roll clouds, shelf clouds, and wall clouds are examples of accessory clouds.

Advection - Transport of an atmospheric property by the wind. See cold advection, moisture advection, warm advection.

Air-mass Thunderstorm - Generally, a thunderstorm not associated with a front or other type of synoptic-scale forcing mechanism. Air mass thunderstorms typically are associated with warm, humid air in the summer months; they develop during the afternoon in response to insolation, and dissipate rather quickly after sunset. They generally are less likely to be severe than other types of thunderstorms, but they still are capable of producing downbursts, brief heavy rain, and (in extreme cases) hail over 3/4 inch in diameter. See popcorn convection.

Since all thunderstorms are associated with some type of forcing mechanism, synoptic-scale or otherwise, the existence of true air-mass thunderstorms is debatable. Therefore the term is somewhat controversial and should be used with discretion.

Algorithm - A computer program (or set of programs) which is designed to systematically solve a certain kind of problem. WSR-88D radars (NEXRAD) employ algorithms to analyze radar data and automatically determine storm motion, probability of hail, VIL, accumulated rainfall, and several other parameters.

Anticyclonic Rotation - Rotation in the opposite sense as the Earth's rotation, i.e., clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere as would be seen from above. The opposite of cyclonic rotation.

Anvil - The flat, spreading top of a Cb (cumulonimbus), often shaped like an anvil. Thunderstorm anvils may spread hundreds of miles downwind from the thunderstorm itself, and sometimes may spread upwind (see back-sheared anvil).

Anvil Crawler - [Slang], a lightning discharge occurring within the anvil of a thunderstorm, characterized by one or more channels that appear to crawl along the underside of the anvil. They typically appear during the weakening or dissipating stage of the parent thunderstorm, or during an active MCS.

Anvil Dome - A large overshooting top or penetrating top.

Anvil Rollover - [Slang], a circular or semicircular lip of clouds along the underside of the upwind part of a back-sheared anvil, indicating rapid expansion of the anvil. See cumuliform anvil, knuckles, mushroom.

Anvil Zits - [Slang], frequent (often continuous or nearly continuous), localized lightning discharges occurring from within a thunderstorm anvil.

AP - Anomalous Propagation. Radar term for false (non-precipitation) echoes resulting from nonstandard propagation of the radar beam under certain atmospheric conditions.

Approaching (severe levels) - A thunderstorm which contains winds of 35 to 49 knots (40 to 57 mph), or hail 1/2 inch or larger but less than 3/4 inch in diameter. See severe thunderstorm.

Arcus - A low, horizontal cloud formation associated with the leading edge of thunderstorm outflow (i.e., the gust front). Roll clouds and shelf clouds both are types of arcus clouds.

AVN - AViatioN model; one of the operational forecast models run at NCEP. The AVN is run four times daily, at 0000, 0600, 1200, and 1800 GMT. As of fall 1996, forecast output was available operationally out to 120 hours only from the 0000 and 1200 runs. At 0600 and 1800, the model is run only out to 72 hours.


Back-building Thunderstorm - A thunderstorm in which new development takes place on the upwind side (usually the west or southwest side), such that the storm seems to remain stationary or propagate in a backward direction.

Backing Winds - Winds which shift in a counterclockwise direction with time at a given location (e.g. from southerly to southeasterly), or change direction in a counterclockwise sense with height (e.g. westerly at the surface but becoming more southerly aloft). The opposite of veering winds.

In storm spotting, a backing wind usually refers to the turning of a south or southwest surface wind with time to a more east or southeasterly direction. Backing of the surface wind can increase the potential for tornado development by increasing the directional shear at low levels.

Back-sheared Anvil - [Slang], a thunderstorm anvil which spreads upwind, against the flow aloft. A back-sheared anvil often implies a very strong updraft and a high severe weather potential. (See Fig. 7, supercell.)

Barber Pole - [Slang], a thunderstorm updraft with a visual appearance including cloud striations that are curved in a manner similar to the stripes of a barber pole. The structure typically is most pronounced on the leading edge of the updraft, while drier air from the rear flank downdraft often erodes the clouds on the trailing side of the updraft.

Baroclinic Zone - A region in which a temperature gradient exists on a constant pressure surface. Baroclinic zones are favored areas for strengthening and weakening systems; barotropic systems, on the other hand, do not exhibit significant changes in intensity. Also, wind shear is characteristic of a baroclinic zone.

Barotropic System - A weather system in which temperature and pressure surfaces are coincident, i.e., temperature is uniform (no temperature gradient) on a constant pressure surface. Barotropic systems are characterized by a lack of wind shear, and thus are generally unfavorable areas for severe thunderstorm development. See baroclinic zone.

Usually, in operational meteorology, references to barotropic systems refer to equivalent barotropic systems - systems in which temperature gradients exist, but are parallel to height gradients on a constant pressure surface. In such systems, height contours and isotherms are parallel everywhere, and winds do not change direction with height.

As a rule, a true equivalent barotropic system can never be achieved in the real atmosphere. While some systems (such as closed lows or cutoff lows) may reach a state that is close to equivalent barotropic, the term barotropic system usually is used in a relative sense to describe systems that are really only close to being equivalent barotropic, i.e., isotherms and height contours are nearly parallel everywhere and directional wind shear is weak.

Bear's Cage - [Slang], a region of storm-scale rotation, in a thunderstorm, which is wrapped in heavy precipitation. This area often coincides with a radar hook echo and/or mesocyclone, especially one associated with an HP storm.

The term reflects the danger involved in observing such an area visually, which must be done at close range in low visibility.

Beaver('s) Tail - [Slang], a particular type of inflow band with a relatively broad, flat appearance suggestive of a beaver's tail. It is attached to a supercell's general updraft and is oriented roughly parallel to the pseudo-warm front, i.e., usually east to west or southeast to northwest. As with any inflow band, cloud elements move toward the updraft, i.e., toward the west or northwest. Its size and shape change as the strength of the inflow changes. See also inflow stinger.

Spotters should note the distinction between a beaver tail and a tail cloud. A "true" tail cloud typically is attached to the wall cloud and has a cloud base at about the same level as the wall cloud itself. A beaver tail, on the other hand, is not attached to the wall cloud and has a cloud base at about the same height as the updraft base (which by definition is higher than the wall cloud). Unlike the beaver tail, the tail cloud forms from air that is flowing from the storm's main precipitation cascade region (or outflow region). Thus, it can be oriented at a large angle to the pseudo-warm front.

Blue Watch (or Blue Box) - [Slang], a severe thunderstorm watch.

Boundary Layer - In general, a layer of air adjacent to a bounding surface. Specifically, the term most often refers to the planetary boundary layer, which is the layer within which the effects of friction are significant. For the earth, this layer is considered to be roughly the lowest one or two kilometers of the atmosphere. It is within this layer that temperatures are most strongly affected by daytime insolation and nighttime radiational cooling, and winds are affected by friction with the earth's surface. The effects of friction die out gradually with height, so the "top" of this layer cannot be defined exactly.

There is a thin layer immediately above the earth's surface known as the surface boundary layer (or simply the surface layer). This layer is only a part of the planetary boundary layer, and represents the layer within which friction effects are more or less constant throughout (as opposed to decreasing with height, as they do above it). The surface boundary layer is roughly 10 meters thick, but again the exact depth is indeterminate. Like friction, the effects of insolation and radiational cooling are strongest within this layer.

Bow Echo - A radar echo which is linear but bent outward in a bow shape (Fig. 1). Damaging straight-line winds often occur near the "crest" or center of a bow echo. Areas of circulation also can develop at either end of a bow echo, which sometimes can lead to tornado formation - especially in the left (usually northern) end, where the circulation exhibits cyclonic rotation.

Box (or Watch Box) - [Slang], a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch. See blue box, red box.

BRN - See Bulk Richardson Number.

Bubble High - A mesoscale area of high pressure, typically associated with cooler air from the rainy downdraft area of a thunderstorm or a complex of thunderstorms. A gust front or outflow boundary separates a bubble high from the surrounding air.

Bulk Richardson Number (or BRN) - A non-dimensional number relating vertical stability and vertical shear (generally, stability divided by shear). High values indicate unstable and/or weakly-sheared environments; low values indicate weak instability and/or strong vertical shear. Generally, values in the range of around 50 to 100 suggest environmental conditions favorable for supercell development.

Bust - [Slang], an inaccurate forecast or an unsuccessful storm chase; usually a situation in which thunderstorms or severe weather are expected, but do not occur.

BWER - Bounded Weak Echo Region. (Also known as a vault.) Radar signature within a thunderstorm characterized by a local minimum in radar reflectivity at low levels which extends upward into, and is surrounded by, higher reflectivities aloft (Fig. 2). This feature is associated with a strong updraft and is almost always found in the inflow region of a thunderstorm. It cannot be seen visually. See WER. is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.