Illustration of a microburst at an airport. The air moves in a downward motion until it hits the surface. It then spreads outward in all directions. The wind regime in a microburst is opposite to that of a tornado.

In meteorology, a downburst is a strong downward and outward gushing wind system that emanates from a point source above and blows radially, that is, in straight lines in all directions from the area of impact at surface level. It originates under deep, moist convective conditions like Cumulus congestus or Cumulonimbus. Capable of producing damaging winds, it may sometimes be confused with a tornado, where high-velocity winds circle a central area, and air moves inward and upward. These usually last for seconds to minutes. Downbursts are particularly strong downdrafts within thunderstorms (or deep, moist convection as sometimes downbursts emanate from cumulonimbus or even cumulus congestus clouds that are not producing lightning).

Downbursts are most often created by an area of significantly precipitation-cooled air that, after reaching the surface (subsiding), spreads out in all directions producing strong winds. Dry downbursts are associated with thunderstorms that exhibit very little rain, while wet downbursts are created by thunderstorms with significant amounts of precipitation.[1] Microbursts and macrobursts are downbursts at very small and larger scales, respectively. A rare variety of dry downburst, the heat burst, is created by vertical currents on the backside of old outflow boundaries and squall lines where rainfall is lacking. Heat bursts generate significantly higher temperatures due to the lack of rain-cooled air in their formation and compressional heating during descent.

Down bursts are a topic of notable discussion in aviation, since they create vertical wind shear, which has the potential to be dangerous to aviation, especially during landing (or takeoff), where airspeed performance windows are the most narrow. Several fatal and historic crashes in past decades are attributed to the phenomenon and flight crew training goes to great lengths on how to properly recognize and recover from a downburst/wind shear event; wind shear recovery, among other adverse weather events, are standard topics across the world in flight simulator training that flight crews receive and must successfully complete. Detection and nowcasting technology was also implemented in much of the world and particularly around major airports, which in many cases actually have wind shear detection equipment on the field. This detection equipment helps air traffic controllers and pilots make decisions on the safety and feasibility of operating on or in the vicinity of the airport during storms.[2]


Downburst damages in a straight line

A downburst is created by a column of sinking air that after hitting the surface spreads out in all directions and is capable of producing damaging straight-line winds of over 240 km/h (150 mph), often producing damage similar to, but distinguishable from, that caused by tornadoes.[1] Downburst damage radiates from a central point as the descending column spreads out when hitting the surface, whereas tornado damage tends towards convergent damage consistent with rotating winds. To differentiate between tornado damage and damage from a downburst, the term straight-line winds is applied to damage from microbursts.

Downbursts in air that is precipitation free or contains virga are known as dry downbursts;[3] those accompanied with precipitation are known as wet downbursts. These generally are formed by precipitation-cooled air rushing to the surface, but they perhaps also could be powered by strong winds aloft being deflected toward the surface by dynamical processes in a thunderstorm (see rear flank downdraft).[citation needed] Most downbursts are less than 4 km (2.5 mi) in extent: these are called microbursts.[4] Downbursts larger than 4 km (2.5 mi) in extent are sometimes called macrobursts.[4] Downbursts can occur over large areas. In the extreme case, a series of continuing downbursts results in a derecho, which covers huge areas of more than 320 km (200 mi) wide and over 1,600 km (1,000 mi) long, persisting for 12 hours or more, and which is associated with some of the most intense straight-line winds.[5]

The term microburst was defined by mesoscale meteorology expert Ted 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.[6] Fujita also coined the term macroburst for downbursts larger than 4 km (2.5 mi).[7]

Dry microbursts

Dry microburst schematic

When rain falls below the cloud base or is mixed with dry air, it begins to evaporate and this evaporation process cools the air. The denser cool air descends and accelerates as it approaches the surface. When the cool air approaches the surface, it spreads out in all directions. High winds spread out in this type of pattern showing little or no curvature are known as straight-line winds.[8]

Dry microbursts are typically produced by high based thunderstorms that contain little to no surface rainfall. They 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, cloud base in the mid troposphere, and low surface relative humidity. These conditions evaporate the moisture from the air as it falls, cooling the air and making it fall faster because it is more dense.

Wet microbursts

A wet microburst

Wet microbursts are downbursts accompanied by significant precipitation at the surface.[9] These downbursts rely more on the drag of precipitation for downward acceleration of parcels as well as the 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 1 km (0.6 mi) above surface level (Proctor, 1989). These factors, among others, make forecasting wet microbursts difficult.

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 hPa (mb) As high as 850 hPa (mb)
Features below cloud base Virga Precipitation shaft
Primary catalyst Evaporative cooling Precipitation loading and evaporative cooling
Environment below cloud base Deep dry layer/low relative humidity/dry adiabatic lapse rate Shallow dry layer/high relative humidity/moist adiabatic lapse rate

Straight-line winds

See also: Derecho

Straight-line winds (also known as plough winds, thundergusts, and hurricanes of the prairie) are very strong winds that can produce damage, demonstrating a lack of the rotational damage pattern associated with tornadoes.[10] Straight-line winds are common with the gust front of a thunderstorm or originate with a downburst from a thunderstorm. These events can cause considerable damage, even in the absence of a tornado. The winds can gust to 58 m/s (130 mph)[11] and winds of 26 m/s (58 mph) or more can last for more than twenty minutes.[12] In the United States, such straight-line wind events are most common during the spring when instability is highest and weather fronts routinely cross the country.[citation needed] Straight-line wind events in the form of derechos can take place throughout the eastern half of the U.S.[13]

Straight-line winds may be damaging to marine interests. Small ships, cutters and sailboats are at risk from this meteorological phenomenon.[citation needed]


The formation of a downburst starts with hail or large raindrops falling through drier air. Hailstones melt and raindrops evaporate, pulling latent heat from surrounding air and cooling it considerably. Cooler air has a higher density than the warmer air around it, so it sinks to the surface. As the cold air hits the ground or water it spreads out and a mesoscale front can be observed as a gust front. Areas under and immediately adjacent to the downburst are the areas which receive the highest winds and rainfall, if any is present. Also, because the rain-cooled air is descending from the middle troposphere, a significant drop in temperatures is noticed. Due to interaction with the surface, the downburst quickly loses strength as it fans out and forms the distinctive "curl shape" that is commonly seen at the periphery of the microburst (see image). Downbursts usually last only a few minutes and then dissipate, except in the case of squall lines and derecho events. However, despite their short lifespan, microbursts are a serious hazard to aviation and property and can result in substantial damage to the area.

Downbursts go through three stages in their cycle: the downburst, outburst, and cushion stages.[14]

Development stages of microbursts

The evolution of microbursts is broken down into three stages: the contact stage, the outburst stage, and the cushion stage:[15]

On a weather radar Doppler display, a downburst is seen as a couplet of radial winds in the outburst and cushion stages. The rightmost image shows such a display from the ARMOR Doppler Weather Radar in Huntsville, Alabama in 2012. The radar is on the right side of the image and the downburst is along the line separating the velocity towards the radar (green), and the one moving away (red).

Physical processes of dry and wet microbursts

Basic physical processes using simplified buoyancy equations

Start by using the vertical momentum equation:

By decomposing the variables into a basic state and a perturbation, defining the basic states, and using the ideal gas law (), then the equation can be written in the form

where B is buoyancy. 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 parametrized by including a term that decreases buoyancy as the liquid water mixing ratio () increases, leading to the final form of the parcel's momentum equation:

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. Clearly, 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 requires 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 buoyancy, if a parcel has a liquid water mixing ratio of 1.0 g kg−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.[16]

Negative vertical motion associated only with buoyancy

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

where NAPE is the negative available potential energy,

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 (56 mph; 90 km/h) results from the relatively modest NAPE value of 312.5 m2 s−2. To a first approximation, the maximum gust is roughly equal to the maximum downdraft speed.[16]

Heat bursts

Main article: Heat burst

A special, and much rarer, kind of downburst is a heat burst, which results from precipitation-evaporated air compressionally heating as it descends from very high altitude, usually on the backside of a dying squall line or outflow boundary.[17] Heat bursts are chiefly a nocturnal occurrence, can produce winds over 160 km/h (100 mph), are characterized by exceptionally dry air, can suddenly raise the surface temperature to 38 °C (100 °F) or more, and sometimes persist for several hours.

Danger to aviation

Further information: Wind shear and Cumulonimbus and aviation

A series of photographs of the surface curl soon after a microburst impacted the surface

Downbursts, particularly microbursts, are exceedingly dangerous to aircraft which are taking off or landing due to the strong vertical wind shear caused by these events. Several fatal crashes are attributed to downbursts.[18]

The following are some fatal crashes and/or aircraft incidents that have been attributed to microbursts in the vicinity of airports:

This list is incomplete; you can help by adding missing items. (August 2022)

A microburst often causes aircraft to crash when they are attempting to land or shortly after takeoff (American Airlines Flight 63 and Delta Air Lines Flight 318 are a notable exception). The microburst is an extremely powerful gust of air that, once hitting the surface, 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, thus causing the aircraft to stall.[18] If the plane is at a low altitude shortly after takeoff or during landing, it will not have sufficient altitude to recover.

The strongest microburst recorded thus far occurred at Andrews Field, Maryland on 1 August 1983, with wind speeds reaching 240.5 km/h (149.4 mph).[43]

Danger to buildings

Strong microburst winds flip a several-ton shipping container up the side of a hill, Vaughan, Ontario, Canada

See also


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