A sting jet is a narrow core of violent winds that sometimes form within the rapidly intensifying North Atlantic and North Pacific extratropical cyclones, developing powerful windstorms towards the ground. Sting jets are associated with the strongest and most damaging windstorms, resulting in violent, hurricane-force winds. How do they form?
The official definition of this meteorological phenomenon is the following:
The most damaging extratropical cyclones go through an evolution that involves the formation of a bent-back front and cloud head separated from the main polar front cloud band by a dry slot. When the cyclone is very close to reaching its minimum central pressure, the trailing tip of the cloud head bounding the bent-back front forms a hook that goes on to encircle seclusion of warm air.
The highest winds occur near the tip (nose) of this hook, the sting at the end of the tail.
Sounds a bit too scientific? Well, it’s not that complicated. Let’s find out.
A STING JET
With numerous North Atlantic deep cyclones that often graze into western Europe with damaging winds and waves, some are violent with major tree and structural damage. Over the recent years, there were Storm Eunice, Storm Leslie, Storm Jorge, and Storm Ophelia.
Sting jet is the meteorological phenomenon blamed for producing violent, hurricane-force winds with the most notable events. This phenomenon results in a swath of particularly intense winds, often leading to peak wind gusts well above 150 km/h (90 mph). Sometimes even surpassing 200 km/h (125 mph), causing extensive severe damage.
Above: Water vapor satellite image of Storm Jorge
A sting jet is a relatively narrow zone of the very powerful wind maximum, originating from inside the mid-tropospheric cloud head within the explosive cyclogenesis or a bomb cyclone in the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean.
HOW A STING JET FORMS?
The extratropical cyclone has two frontal zones, the warm front and the cold front following it. A strong flow of cold air develops into the cyclone ahead of the warm front, known as the cold conveyor belt.
Behind the main cold front, a colder and much drier air mass, often originating from the Arctic region, flows towards the cyclone’s core. It forms a dry intrusion towards the center of a deepening low. The dry intrusion is typically rounding the low, emerging from the southwest direction.
Above: Textook example of a Sting jet
The cold conveyor belt brings cold and moist air towards the center of the rapidly developing extratropical storm, together with precipitation such as rain and snow. At the same time, the dry intrusion brings cooler and very dry air into the cyclone.
As the precipitation from the cold conveyor belt falls into the layers of air within the dry intrusion streak, droplets quickly evaporate, further cooling the air mass. This is a process known as evaporative cooling.
Above: Schematic view of a Sting Jet Formation
At the final stage of the sting jet process, strong winds descend towards the surface and intensify further as the air parcels dry out. These winds are grazing through the layers with the evaporation of the air on the nose of this descending jet. Thus creating a clear path through the precipitation with the evaporative cooling process, leading to the air becoming much denser within the jet.
The result is the acceleration of the downward momentum or, in other words, very strong winds are pushed down with higher force towards the tip of the cloud head when it wraps around the cyclone dead center.
Above: Banded cloud head on the nose of a Sting jet
All these processes with the sting jet occur at altitudes up to about 3-4 km above sea level surface. The cooled air, being much denser than the surrounding air, descends rapidly to the surface, producing even stronger winds within the already intense wind field of the cyclone. The entire region of this cooled, accelerated airflow is narrow, forming what is known as a sting jet.
Once the sting jet is fully developed, this wind maximum is also very easily recognizable on the satellite imagery as the shape of the cyclone’s comma cloud is hooked just like a scorpion’s tail. This gives this dangerous wind region its famous name.
The composite satellite image above hints at the textbook example of the cyclone overlapped with a scorpion’s tail. Looks familiar.
As mentioned, a sting jet usually affects only a small region of about 100-200 km (100-125 miles) across and is compared to the size of the parent large bomb cyclone pretty narrow. The phenomenon usually lasts only for several hours, but destructive winds will occur if it spreads across the land.
Above: Wind analysis across the extratropical cyclone
When we see Atlantic storms developing rapidly or explosively, we can expect their typical satellite appearance of the banded cloud heads to result in sting jets. The cloud head is strongly curved towards the cyclone’s core, where the most intense winds will likely blast towards the surface.
These cloud bands on the edge of the comma cloud will disappear quite sharply on the nose of the sting jet. This happens due to the strong evaporation of the air parcels within the dry intrusion.
How do we forecast these events?
Sting jets are quite difficult to forecast as they are relatively small in size and depend on how the cyclonic system has developed from its initial stages. However, with the current high-resolution weather model forecast charts, we can recognize the streaks of particularly violent winds inside the strong wind field with the cyclone in general.
Above: An example of wind gusts forecast
Of course, as we have seen above, we can also spot the sting jet developing on satellite images using various channels and spectrums. As we learned, the end of the cold conveyor belt hints at the sting by a hook-shaped cloud. Like the sting in a scorpion’s tail, the look of it can also hint that this wind maximum has developed.
We often use satellite images representing the amount of water vapor in the air, those are usually made up of light and dark shades. The darker the shade is painted, the less water vapor is present there. As we know, clouds are made when water vapor condenses into water droplets, but around the sting jet, dark fingers of air stretch out, telling us that the rollercoaster of wind is also very dry—a small core of fast-moving, cold, dense, dry air.
Not every deep extratropical cyclone develops a sting jet. This phenomenon is still known as a quite rare event. Sting jets have been confirmed on only about two dozen of the most intense cyclones over western and central Europe.
The Isle of Wight, the largest and second-most populous island of England, reported a record-breaking wind gust of 196 km/h (122 mph) for England during the windstorm Eunice on February 18th, 2022. This wind gust has surpassed the previous record of 190 km/h (118 mph) set at Gwennap Head, Cornwall in 1979.
Leslie’s violent windstorm brought wind gusts up to 176.4 km/h (109.6 mph) in Figueira da Foz, Vila Verde, Portugal, on October 14th, 2018. Extensive damage was reported in the town, with numerous uprooted trees, severely damaged roofs, and overturned trailers along the highways.
Above: Radar image of Storm Leslie with damaging sting jet
The infamous Great Storm of 1987 produced a sting jet with wind gusts peaking at 217 km/h (135 mph), recorded at Pointe Du Roc, Granville, France.
An intense cyclone Oratia (Tora in Norway) in late October and early November of 2000 produced winds gusting up to 176 km/h (110 mph) in Camaret-Sur-Mer, France).
A damaging cyclone Ulli (early January 2012) produced winds up to 172 km/h in Ijmuiden, the Netherlands.
Here are more details on some of the major windstorms in Western Europe over the recent decade:
- Destructive windstorm Eunice across Western Europe – February 18th, 2022
- The most intense Bomb Cyclone of Winter Season 2021/22 in the North Atlantic – February 7th, 2022
- Windstorm Alex hits Brittany, France and English Channel – October 2nd, 2020
- A bomb cyclone Jorge – February 28th, 2020
- A powerful deep cyclone along the Pacific Northwest, U.S. – November 26th, 2019
- Extensive wind damage to western Portugal during landfall of Storm Leslie – October 14th, 2018
- Storm Ophelia brings 191 km/h gust recorded at Fastnet Lighthouse, SW Ireland – October 16th, 2017
- Powerful windstorm across Brittany, NW France – March 6th, 2017
See additional articles in the Basic Weather.