Sting Jet: the poisonous (and windy) tail of some of the most intense UK storms


Figure 1: Windstorm Tini (12 Feb 2014) passes over the British Isles bringing extreme winds. A Sting Jet has been identified in the storm. Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

It was the morning of 16th October when South East England got battered by the Great Storm of 1987. Extreme winds occurred, with gusts of 70 knots or more recorded continually for three or four consecutive hours and maximum gusts up to 100 knots. The damage was huge across the country with 15 million trees blown down and 18 fatalities.

Figure 2: Surface wind gusts in the Great Storm of 1987. Image courtesy of UK Met Office.

The forecast issued on the evening of 15th October failed to identify the incoming hazard but forecasters were not to blame as the strongest winds were actually due to a phenomenon that had yet to be discovered at the time: the Sting Jet. A new topic of weather-related research had started: what was the cause of the exceptionally strong winds in the Great Storm?

It was in Reading at the beginning of 21st century that scientists came up with the first formal description of those winds, using observations and model simulations. Following the intuitions of Norwegian forecasters they used the term Sting Jet, the ‘sting at the end of the tail’. Using some imagination we can see the resemblance of the bent-back cloud head with a scorpion’s tail: strong winds coming out from its tip and descending towards the surface can then be seen as the poisonous sting at the end of the tail.

Figure 3: Conceptual model of a sting-jet extratropical cyclone, from Clark et al, 2005. As the cloud head bends back and the cold front moves ahead we can see the Sting Jet exiting from the cloud tip and descending into the opening frontal fracture.  WJ: Warm conveyor belt. CJ: Cold conveyor belt. SJ: Sting jet.

In the last decade sting-jet research progressed steadily with observational, modelling and climatological studies confirming that the strong winds can occur relatively often, that they form in intense extratropical cyclones with a particular shape and are caused by an additional airstream that is neither related to the Cold nor to the Warm Conveyor Belt. The key questions are currently focused on the dynamics of Sting Jets: how do they form and accelerate?

Works recently published (and others about to come out, stay tuned!) claim that although the Sting Jet occurs in an area in which fairly strong winds would already be expected given the morphology of the storm, a further mechanism of acceleration is needed to take into account its full strength. In fact, it is the onset of mesoscale instabilities and the occurrence of evaporative cooling on the airstream that enhances its descent and acceleration, generating a focused intense jet (see references for more details). It is thus necessary a synergy between the general dynamics of the storm and the local processes in the cloud head in order to produce what we call the Sting Jet .

plot_3D_sj ccb_short
Figure 4: Sting Jet (green) and Cold Conveyor Belt (blue) in the simulations of Windstorm Tini. The animation shows how the onset of the strongest winds is related to the descent of the Sting Jet. For further details on this animation and on the analysis of Windstorm Tini see here.


Browning, K. A. (2004), The sting at the end of the tail: Damaging winds associated with extratropical cyclones. Q.J.R. Meteorol. Soc., 130: 375–399. doi:10.1256/qj.02.143

Clark, P. A., K. A. Browning, and C. Wang (2005), The sting at the end of the tail: Model diagnostics of fine-scale three-dimensional structure of the cloud head. Q.J.R. Meteorol. Soc., 131: 2263–2292. doi:10.1256/qj.04.36

Martínez-Alvarado, O., L.H. Baker, S.L. Gray, J. Methven, and R.S. Plant (2014), Distinguishing the Cold Conveyor Belt and Sting Jet Airstreams in an Intense Extratropical Cyclone. Mon. Wea. Rev., 142, 2571–2595, doi: 10.1175/MWR-D-13-00348.1.

Hart, N.G., S.L. Gray, and P.A. Clark, 0: Sting-jet windstorms over the North Atlantic: Climatology and contribution to extreme wind risk. J. Climate, 0, doi: 10.1175/JCLI-D-16-0791.1.

Volonté, A., P.A. Clark, S.L. Gray. The role of Mesoscale Instabilities in the Sting-Jet dynamics in Windstorm Tini. Poster presented at European Geosciences Union – General Assembly 2017, Dynamical Meteorology (General session)

The onset and end of wet seasons over Africa


For many Africans, the timing of the wet season is of crucial importance, especially for those reliant upon subsistence agriculture, who depend on the seasonal rains for crop irrigation. In addition, the wet season recharges lakes, rivers and water storage tanks which constitute the domestic water supply in some areas. The timing of the wet season also affects the availability of energy from hydroelectric schemes, and has impacts upon the prevalence of certain disease carrying vectors, such as mosquitoes.

Climate change is already threatening many vulnerable populations, and changes in the timing or intensity of the wet season, or increasing uncertainty in the timing of the onset, may lead to significant socio-economic impacts. But before we consider future projections or past changes in the seasonality, we need to go back a few steps.

The first step is to find a method for determining when the wet season starts and ends (its ‘onset’ and ‘cessation’). In order to look at large-scale shifts in the timing of the wet season and relate this to wider-scale drivers, this method needs to be applicable across the entirety of continental Africa. Most previous methods for determining the onset focus on the national to regional scale, and are dependent on the exceedance of a certain threshold e.g. the first week with at least 20mm of rainfall, with one rainfall event of more than 10mm, and no dry spell of more than 10 days after the rain event for the next month. While such definitions work well at a national scale they are not applicable at a continental scale where rainfall amounts vary substantially. A threshold suitable for the dry countries at the fringes of the Sahara would not be suitable in the wetter East African highlands.

In addition to a vast range of rainfall amounts, the African continent also spans multiple climatic regimes. The seasonal cycle of precipitation over continental Africa is largely driven by the seasonal progression of the ITCZ and associated rain belts, which follows the maximum incoming solar radiation. In the boreal summer, when the thermal equator sits between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, the ITCZ sits north of the equator and West Africa and the Sahel experience a wet season. During the boreal autumn the ITCZ moves south, and southern Africa experiences a wet season during the austral summer, followed by the northward return of the ITCZ during the boreal spring. As a consequence of this, central African regions and the Horn of Africa experience two wet seasons per year – one as the ITCZ travels north, and a second as the ITCZ travels south. A method for determining the onset and cessation at the continental scale thus needs to account for regions with multiple wet seasons per year.

In our paper (available here) we propose such a method, based on the method of Liebmann et al (2012). The method has three steps:

  • Firstly, determine the number of seasons experienced per year at the location (or grid point) of interest. This is achieved using harmonic analysis – the amplitude of the first and second harmonic were computed, using the entire timeseries and their ratio compared. If the ratio was greater than 1.0, i.e. the amplitude of the second harmonic was greater than the amplitude of the first harmonic then the grid point was defined as having two wet seasons per year (biannual), if the ratio was less than one then it was defined as having an annual regime. Figure 1 shows the ratio for one African rainfall dataset (TARCATv2). Three regions are identified as biannual regions; the Horn of Africa, an equatorial strip extending from Gabon to Uganda and a small region on the southern West African coastline.

    Figure 1: Location of regions with one and two seasons per year, determined using harmonic analysis. Yellow indicates two seasons per year, while pink/purple indicates one season per year. Computed from TARCATv2 data.
  • Secondly the period of the year when the wet season occurs was determined. This was achieved by looking for minima and maxima in the climatological cumulative daily rainfall anomaly to identify one or two seasons.
  • The third and final stage is to calculate the onset and cessation dates for each year. This is done by looking for the minima and maxima in the cumulative daily rainfall anomaly, calculated for each season.

Figure 2 shows the seasonal progression of the onset and cessation, with the patterns observed in agreement with those expected from the driving physical mechanisms, and continuous progression across the annual/biannual boundaries. Over West Africa and the Sahel, Figure 2a-b shows zonally-contiguous progression patterns with onset following the onset of the long rains and moving north, and cessation moving southward, preceding the end of the short rains. Over southern Africa Figure 2c-d shows the onset over southern Africa starting in the north-west and south-east, following the onset of the short rains, reaching the East African coast last, and cessation starting at the Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa border and spreading out radially into the cessation of the long rains.

As well as testing the method for compatibility with known physical drivers of African rainfall, agreement across multiple satellite-based rainfall estimates was also examined. In general, good agreement was found across the datasets, particularly for regions with an annual regime and over the biannual region of East Africa.

Figure 2: Southward and northward progression of the onset and cessation across the annual/biannual boundaries, computed using GPCP daily rainfall data 1998-2013.

The advantage of having a method that works at the continental scale is the ability to look at the impact of large-scale oscillations on wider-scale variability. One application of this method was to investigate the impact of El Niño upon both the annual rains and short rains (Figure 3). In Figure 3 we see the well-documented dipole in rainfall anomaly, with higher rainfall totals over 0–15°S and the Horn of Africa in El Niño years and the opposite between 15°S and 30°S.  This anomaly is stronger when we use this method compared with using standard meteorological seasons. We can also see that while the lower rainfall to the south is colocated with later onset dates and a consequentially shorter season, the higher rainfall over the Horn of Africa is associated with later cessation of the short rains, with only small differences in onset date.

Figure 3: a-c) Composite of onset, cessation and wet season rainfall in El Niño years for annual rains and short rains, minus the mean over 1982-2013, computed using CHIRPS data d) Oct-Feb rainfall anomaly in  years (CHIRPS).

In addition to using this method for research purposes, its application within an operational setting is also being explored. Hopefully, the method will be included within the Rainwatch platform, which will be able to provide users with a probabilistic estimate of whether or not the season has started, based on the rainfall experienced so far that year, and historical rainfall data.

For more details, please see the paper detailing this work:

Dunning, C.M., E Black, and R.P. Allan (2016) The onset and cessation of seasonal rainfall over Africa, Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 121 11,405-11,424, doi: 10.1002/2016JD025428


Liebmann, B., I. Bladé, G. N. Kiladis, L. M. Carvalho, G. B. Senay, D. Allured, S. Leroux, and C. Funk (2012), Seasonality of African precipitation from 1996 to 2009, J. Clim.25(12), 4304–4322.

Can we really use El Niño to predict flooding?

R. Emerton, H. Cloke, E. Stephens, E. Zsoter, S. Woolnough, F. Pappenberger (2017). Complex picture for likelihood of ENSO-driven flood hazard. Nature Communications. doi: 10.1038/NCOMMS14796


When an El Niño is declared, or even forecast, we think back to memorable past El Niños (such as 1997/98), and begin to ask whether we will see the same impacts. Will California receive a lot of rainfall? Will we see droughts in tropical Asia and Australia? Will Peru experience the same devastating floods as in 1997/98, and 1982/83?


El Niño and La Niña, which see changes in the ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific, are well known to affect weather, and indeed river flow and flooding, around the globe. But how well can we estimate the potential impacts of El Niño and La Niña, and how likely flooding is to occur?

This question is what some of us in the Water@Reading research group at the University of Reading have been looking to answer in our recent publication in Nature Communications. As part of our multi- and inter-disciplinary research, we work closely with the Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre (RCCC), who are working on an initiative called Forecast-based Financing (FbF, Coughlan de Perez et al.). FbF aims to distribute aid (for example providing water purification tablets to prevent spread of disease, or digging trenches to divert flood water) ahead of a flood, based on forecasts. This approach helps to reduce the impact of the flood in the first place, rather than working to undo the damage once the flood has already occurred.

Photo credit: Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre

In Peru, previous strong El Niños in 1982/83 and 1997/98 had resulted in devastating floods in several regions. As such, when forecasts in early 2015 began to indicate a very strong El Niño was developing, the RCCC and forecasters at the Peruvian national hydrological and meteorology agency (SENAMHI) began to look into the likelihood of flooding, and what FbF actions might need to be taken.

Typically, statistical products indicating the historical probability (likelihood [%] based on what happened during past El Niños) of extreme precipitation are used as a proxy for whether a region will experience flooding during an El Niño (or La Niña), such as these maps produced by the IRI (International Research Institute for Climate and Society). You may also have seen maps which circle regions of the globe that will be drier / warmer / wetter / cooler – we’ll come back to these shortly.

These rainfall maps show that Peru, alongside several other regions of the world, is likely to see more rainfall than usual during an El Niño. But does this necessarily mean there will be floods? And what products are out there indicating the effect of El Niño on rivers across the globe?

For organisations working at the global scale, such as the RCCC and other humanitarian aid agencies, global overviews of potential impacts are key in taking decisions on where to focus resources during an El Niño or La Niña. While these maps are useful for looking at the likely changes in precipitation, it has been shown that the link between precipitation and flood magnitude is nonlinear (Stephens et al.),  – more rain does not necessarily equal floods – so how does this transfer to the potential for flooding?

The motivation behind this work was to provide similar information, but taking into account the hydrology as well as the meteorology. We wanted to answer the question “what is the probability of flooding during El Niño?” not only for Peru, but for the global river network.

To do this, we have taken the new ECMWF ERA-20CM ensemble model reconstruction of the atmosphere, and run this through a hydrological model to produce the first 20th century global hydrological reconstruction of river flow. Using this new dataset, we have for the first time estimated the historical probability of increased or decreased flood hazard (defined as abnormally high or low river flow) during an El Niño (or La Niña), for the global river network.

Figure 1: The probability of increased (blue) or decreased (red) flood hazard during each month of an El Nino. Based on the ensemble mean of the ERA-20CM-R 20th century river flow reconstruction.

The question – “what is the probability of flooding during El Niño?”, however, remains difficult to answer. We now have maps of the probability of abnormally high or low river flow (see Figure 1), and we see clear differences between the hydrological analysis and precipitation. It is also evident that the probabilities themselves are often lower, and much more uncertain, than might be useful – how do you make a decision on whether to provide aid to an area worried about flooding, when the probability of that flooding is 50%?

Figure 2: Historical probability of increased / decreased flood hazard map for February, with overlay showing the typical impact map for winter during an El Nino. This highlights the complexity of the link between El Nino and flooding compared to the information usually available.

The likely impacts are much more complex than is often perceived and reported – going back to the afore-mentioned maps that circle regions of the globe and what their impact will be (warmer, drier, wetter?) – these maps portray these impacts as a certainty, not a probability, with the same impacts occurring across huge areas. For example, in Figure 2, we take one of the maps from our results, which indicates the probability of increased or decreased flood hazard in one month during an El Niño, and draw over this these oft-seen circles of potential impacts. In doing this, we remove all information on how likely (or unlikely) the impacts are, smaller scale changes within these circles (in some cases our flood hazard map even indicates a different impact), and a lot of the potential impacts outside of these circles – not to mention the likely impacts can change dramatically from one month to the next. For those organisations that take actions based on such information, it is important to be aware of the uncertainties surrounding the likely impacts of El Niño and La Niña.

“We conclude that while it may seem possible to use historical probabilities to evaluate regions across the globe that are more likely to be at risk of flooding during an El Niño / La Niña, and indeed circle large areas of the globe under one banner of wetter or drier, the reality is much more complex.”

PS. During the winter of 2015/16, our results estimated an ~80% likelihood of increased flood hazard in northern coastal Peru, with only ~10% uncertainty surrounding this. The RCCC took FbF actions to protect thousands of families from potentially devastating floods driven by one of the strongest El Niños on records. While flooding did occur, this was not as severe as expected based on the strength of the El Niño. More recently, during the past few months (January – March 2017), anomalously high sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the far eastern Pacific (known as a “coastal El Niño” in Peru but not widely acknowledged as an El Niño because central Pacific SSTs are not anomalously warm) have led to devastating flooding in several regions and significant loss of life. And Peru wasn’t the only place that didn’t see the impacts it expected in 2015/16; other regions of the world, such as the US, also saw more rainfall than normal in places that were expected to be drier, and California didn’t receive the deluge they were perhaps hoping for. It’s important to remember that no two El Niños are the same, and El Niño will not be the only influence on the weather around the globe. While El Niño and La Niña can provide some added predictability to the atmosphere, the impacts are far from certain.

Presidente Kuczynski recorre zonas afectadas por lluvias e inund
Flooded areas of Trujillo, Peru, March 2017. Photo credit: Presidencia Peru, via Floodlist

Full reference:

R. Emerton, H. Cloke, E. Stephens, E. Zsoter, S. Woolnough, F. Pappenberger (2017). Complex picture for likelihood of ENSO-driven flood hazard. Nature Communications. doi: 10.1038/NCOMMS14796

Press Release:

Stationary Orographic Rainbands


Small-scale rainbands often form downwind of mountainous terrain. Although relatively small in scale (a few tens of km across by up to ~100 km in length), these often poorly forecast bands can cause localised flooding as they can be associated with intense precipitation over several hours due to the anchoring effect of orography (Barrett et al., 2013).   Figure 1 shows a flash flood caused by a rainband situated over Cockermouth in 2009.  In some regions of southern France orographic banded convection can contribute 40% of the total rainfall (Cosma et al., 2002).  Rainbands occur in various locations and under different synoptic regimes and environmental conditions making them difficult to examine their properties and determine their occurrence in a systematic way (Kirshbaum et al. 2007a,b, Fairman et al. 2016).  My PhD considers the ability of current operational forecast models to represent these bands and the environmental controls on their formation.

Figure 1: Flash flood event caused by a rainband situated over Cockermouth, Cumbria, UK in 2009


What is a rainband?

  • A cloud and precipitation structure associated with an area of rainfall which is significantly elongated
  • Stationary (situated over the same location) with continuous triggering
  • Can form in response to moist, unstable air following over complex terrain
  • Narrow in width ~2-10 km with varying length scales from 10 – 100’s km


Figure 2: Schematic showing the difference between cellular and banded convection

To examine the ability of current operational forecast models to represent these bands a case study was chosen which was first introduced by Barrett, et al. (2016).  The radar observations during the event showed a clear band along The Great Glen Fault, Scotland (Figure 3).  However, Barrett, et al. (2016) concluded that neither the operational forecast or the operational ensemble forecast captured the nature of the rainband.  For more information on ensemble models see one of our previous blog posts by David Flack Showers: How well can we predict them?.

Figure 3: Radar observations of precipitation accumulation over a six hour period (between 3-9 am) showing a rainband located over The Great Glen Fault, Scotland on 29 December 2012.

Localised convergence and increased convective available potential energy along the fault supported the formation of the rainband.  To determine the effect of model resolution on the model’s representation of the rainband, a forecast was performed with the horizontal gird spacing decreased to 500 m from 1.5 km.  In this forecast a rainband formed in the correct location which generated precipitation accumulations close to those observed, but with a time displacement.  The robustness of this forecast skill improvement is being assessed by performing an ensemble of these convection-permitting simulations.  Results suggest that accurate representation of these mesoscale rainbands requires resolutions higher than those used operationally by national weather centres.

Idealised numerical simulations have been used to investigate the environmental conditions leading to the formation of these rainbands.  The theoretical dependence of the partitioning of dry flow over and around mountains on the non-dimensional mountain height is well understood.  For this project I examine the effect of this dependence on rainband formation in a moist environment.  Preliminary analysis of the results show that the characteristics of rainbands are controlled by more than just the non-dimensional mountain height, even though this parameter is known to be sufficient to determine flow behaviour relative to mountains.

This work has been funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) under the project PREcipitation STructures over Orography (PRESTO), for more project information click here.


Barrett, A. I., S. L. Gray, D. J. Kirshbaum, N. M. Roberts, D. M. Schultz, and J. G. Fairman, 2015: Synoptic Versus Orographic Control on Stationary Convective Banding. Quart. J. Roy. Meteorol. Soc., 141, 1101–1113, doi:10.1002/qj.2409.

— 2016: The Utility of Convection-Permitting Ensembles for the Prediction of Stationary Convective Bands. Mon. Wea. Rev., 144, 10931114, doi:10.1175/MWR-D-15-0148.1.

Cosma, S., E. Richard, and F. Minsicloux, 2002: The Role of Small-Scale Orographic Features in the Spatial Distribution of Precipitation. Quart. J. Roy. Meteorol. Soc., 128, 75–92, doi:10.1256/00359000260498798.

Fairman, J. G., D. M. Schultz, D. J. Kirshbaum, S. L. Gray, and A. I. Barrett, 2016: Climatology of Banded Precipitation over the Contiguous United States. Mon. Wea. Rev., 144,4553–4568, doi: 10.1175/MWR-D-16-0015.1.

Kirshbaum, D. J., G. H. Bryan, R. Rotunno, and D. R. Durran, 2007a: The Triggering of Orographic Rainbands by Small-Scale Topography. J. Atmos. Sci., 64, 1530–1549, doi:10.1175/JAS3924.1.

Kirshbaum, D. J., R. Rotunno, and G. H. Bryan, 2007b: The Spacing of Orographic Rainbands Triggered by Small-Scale Topography. J. Atmos. Sci., 64, 4222–4245, doi:10.1175/2007JAS2335.1.