Global Atmospheric Circulation

If you live in the UK, you live in a temperate climate. Often, you may be jealous of those who live in the Caribbean for their warm, tropical climate, especially when it is cold and dreary where you live. This, perhaps, may have led to you pondering if there was some way you could switch the UK climate with the Caribbean, if even only for a day. Unfortunately, climate zone switching isn't possible (although climate change may bring us close). Sad right? Not to mention totally unfair! But what is to blame? The answer to that question is that the patterns of global atmospheric circulation don't allow it to happen. But what exactly is the definition of this? What causes it? Let's find out. 

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Table of contents

    Global atmospheric circulation definition

    Air on earth is in constant motion, known as global atmospheric circulation. Let's define this.

    Global atmospheric circulation is the worldwide movement of air through which thermal energy is distributed across the earth's surface.

    Global atmospheric circulation is responsible for about 50% of the heat transfer on earth.

    Did you know: Global atmospheric circulation helps to explain the locations of world climate zones, as well as the distribution of weather hazards.

    Global atmospheric circulation model

    Air moves in a particular pattern in the atmosphere. The equator drives this pattern. At the equator, temperatures are high because insolation is greater.

    Insolation refers to incoming solar radiation. Latitude has the biggest impact on the extent of the insolation received.

    The high temperatures at the equator cause the air here to rise into the atmosphere. This creates an area of low pressure (less air at the earth's surface means lower pressure). As the air rises, it cools and condenses into clouds, which causes rainfall to occur.

    When the rising air reaches the top of the atmosphere and cannot rise any further, it flows either north or south of the equator, towards the poles. As it moves northwards or southwards, the air cools and then sinks back to earth at about 30o N or S of the equator. The sinking air causes an area of high pressure (more air at the earth's surface means higher pressure). The air here is dry because most of the moisture fell as rain at the equator. Hence, not many clouds develop.

    Areas of low pressure also exist at 60o N and S latitude, while areas of high pressure exist at 90o N and S latitude.

    Global atmospheric circulation cells

    Generally, air moves from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. Global atmospheric circulation occurs when air movements from high to low-pressure areas cause winds across the earth. There are three primary cells or types of atmospheric circulation.

    The Hadley Cell

    The Hadley Cell occurs between 30o and 40o north and south. The air over the low-pressure zone created at the equator rises and then moves north and south towards the poles. At 30o it forms a subtropical high-pressure zone. Here, the air sinks and flows back towards the equator as the trade winds. In the northern hemisphere, these winds are called the northeast trade winds. In the southern hemisphere, the winds are called the southeast trade winds. The complete circulation of air from the equator to 30o N or S and back is known as the Hadley Cell.

    Remember: Winds are named after the direction from which they blow.

    The Ferrel Cell

    The Ferrel Cell is found between 30o - 60o N and S latitude. Air in the Ferrel Cell moves in an opposite direction to the air in the Hadley Cell. The warm air on the surface at 30o N or S latitude moves towards the north and south poles as the warm south-westerly winds in the northern hemisphere and the warm north-westerly winds in the southern hemisphere. As it moves over the oceans, the air becomes moist and, at 60o N or S latitude, meets with cold air, which has moved from the poles. At this point, the warmer air rises and moves back towards the lower latitudes.

    Wonder where the UK's wet and windy weather comes from? Since the warmer air from the tropics is considerably lighter than the cold, denser polar air, the warmer tropic air rises when the two air masses meet. This causes low pressure at the surface. It also creates unstable weather associated with mid-latitude depressions which is responsible for much of the windy and wet weather we have in the UK.

    The Polar Cell

    The Polar Cell is found between 60o - 90o N and S latitude. At the poles (90o N and S), there is the polar high, an area of high pressure. At the polar high, the cold air sinks and then moves towards the lower latitudes. When this air arrives at 60o N or S, it meets warm air and forces it to rise, forming an area of low pressure called the subpolar low. In this zone, there is also the polar front which brings unstable weather to regions at this latitude, like the UK.

    Insolation levels directly control the Hadley and the Polar Cell. However, the Ferrel Cell is controlled by the air movements of the other two cells.

    Global atmospheric circulation diagram

    The diagram or model below illustrates the pattern of global atmospheric circulation described in the previous section. It shows the three different cells as well the direction of the corresponding winds.

    Global atmospheric circulation patterns

    The global atmospheric circulation pattern impacts climate because it redistributes heat and moisture throughout the world.

    A low-pressure system is created at the equator due to rising warm air. This causes tropical areas always to remain warm and have high rainfall levels. At these low latitudes, tropical rainforests can be found. The low-pressure region at the equator also contributes to the formation of tropical cyclones.

    At 30o N and S latitude, at the convergence of the Hadley and the Ferrel Cells, a high-pressure system is created. Here, the weather is calm, and there is a lack of cloud cover and precipitation. These are accompanied by high temperatures. Consequently, hot deserts are usually found at these latitudes.

    At 60o N and S latitude, the rising air creates another area of low pressure. Here, the polar front brings depressions and other types of weather that are fairly unsettled. The relatively high precipitation levels allow temperate forests to grow in these areas.

    Areas of high pressure exist at the north and south poles. Much like at 30o N and S, the weather here is very settled. It is, however, very cold. There is a lack of clouds and little precipitation, so there tend to be cold deserts in this zone.

    Global atmospheric circulation causes

    Two factors cause global atmospheric circulation:

    1. The distribution of incoming solar radiation
    2. The rotation of the earth

    Distribution of incoming solar radiation

    The earth receives energy from the sun. However, as you read earlier in the explanation, the amount of energy received depends on latitude. As a result of the spherical shape of the earth and its tilt, some parts of the planet receive more insolation than others. Specifically, the equator receives more heat than the poles because the sun's rays pass through a shorter distance in the atmosphere to heat the earth's surface. This is because they hit the earth's surface straight on rather than at an angle.

    Global atmospheric circulation occurs to prevent the poles from getting colder and the equator from getting hotter. It results in a net heat transfer from the tropics to the poles.

    The rotation of the earth

    The earth rotates on its axis. The rotation of the earth causes the Coriolis force.

    Coriolis force is an invisible force which deflects the movement of an object.

    The Coriolis force causes the winds to curve as they are blowing. In the northern hemisphere, it causes the winds to bend towards the right. On the other hand, in the southern hemisphere, it causes the winds to bend towards the left. This also explains why hurricanes rotate clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere.

    Did you know: Global air circulation affects climate because the areas of high and low pressure it creates control the type of climate experienced in a particular region.

    Global Atmospheric Circulation - Key takeaways

    • Global atmospheric circulation is the worldwide movement of air, which redistributes heat.
    • It occurs in 3 cells:
      1. the Hadley Cell
      2. the Ferrel Cell
      3. the Polar Cell.
    • The pattern of global atmospheric circulation is responsible for the distribution of climatic zones and climatic hazards.
    • Global atmospheric circulation is driven by the distribution of incoming solar radiation and the earth's rotation.
    • Warm, light tropic air will rise when it meets cold, denser polar air. This causes low pressure at the surface. It also creates unstable weather associated with mid-latitude depressions which is responsible for much of the windy and wet weather we have in the UK.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Global Atmospheric Circulation

    What is global atmospheric circulation?

    Global atmospheric circulation is the worldwide movement of air which results in the re-distribution of heat across the world.

    What are the features of global atmospheric circulation?

    Global atmospheric circulation features areas of high and low pressure and the movement of air as wind between these areas.

    What are the three types of atmospheric circulation?

    The three types of atmospheric circulation are the Hadley Cell, the Ferrel Cell and the Polar Cell.

    What are the causes of global atmospheric circulation?

    Global atmospheric circulation is caused by the spatial differences in insolation received on the earth's surface and the effect of the rotation of the earth.

    How does global air circulation affect climate?

    Global air circulation affects climate because the areas of high and low pressure it creates control the type of climate experienced in a particular region.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Global atmospheric circulation is responsible for about what proportion of the earth's heat transfer?

    True or False:Insolation is outgoing solar radiation.

    Which of the following statements is true?

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