Which is more important....High Instability or Strong Shear?

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Apr 10, 2008
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A large problem with this past Sunday's event (4-25-09) was the lack of clearing ahead of the dry line. I realize a lot of other factors were in place this Sunday which prevented a major outbreak but this made me wonder; would you rather have a lot of instability with lower shear values or stronger shear values with limited instability when forecasting a chase?

Personally, I am a big believer in strong directional shear when forecasting severe weather events. Obviously, having instability in combination with strong directional shear would be ideal but for arguments sake which would you prefer?
 

Jason Boggs

I would much prefer high CAPE over high shear. High shear with little CAPE= storms that get sheared apart.
 

Jay McCoy

EF5
Dec 6, 2003
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I will take instability over shear. Like Jason said if you have lots of shear with little instability storms tend to get leaned over and torn apart. CAPE makes up for lack of shear anytime. Just look at Jarrel, Tx.
 
Dec 4, 2003
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Yeah, I agree this is certainly a matter of personal opinion and experience. For some solid information, here's a great diagram to look at -- see Figure 9 in:

"A Baseline Climatology of Sounding-Derived Supercell and Tornado Forecast Parameters" (Rasmussen & Blanchard 1998)
http://wdtb.noaa.gov/courses/dloc/svrparams/rasmussenAndBlanchard1998.pdf

This diagram suggests that tornadic storms are forgiving of low CAPE, but not so much with low shear. It also suggests when you get into high CAPE days, usually there is enough shear to get something going, perhaps introducing some confirmation bias, then again there's not a whole lot of data in that part of the chart.

Back in the 1990s I was a believer in high CAPE, which was an easy thing to experiment with as I did a lot of chasing out of Abilene far down the dryline, but often I found myself too far south of the action and I went through all of 1993 and all of 1994 (except one day) without seeing a tornado. After seeing many chase days where a little shear squeaked out something in KS but not in TX or OK I've come around to being more interested in heading to where the shear is and will often bias myself further north than south.

Also be aware that CAPE and shear can change significantly as a storm moves from one air mass regime to another. The quantitative output fields (SPC experimental, etc) don't capture this very well and it does require some subjective diagnosis of what's going on.

Tim
 
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Dec 25, 2006
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I confess to being more obsessive over perfect shear than amazing CAPE.

Being from the upper midwest, I'm used to summers with 70 degree dewpoints and lots of cap busts. Most of the time you don't even have shear supportive of tornadoes in the first place, though... despite the big CAPE.

But, apparently, there is a give and take to the game, and different combinations of each that will yield positive results... so I try to concern myself first with finding these combinations first.
 
Dec 25, 2006
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Also be aware that CAPE and shear can change significantly as a storm moves from one air mass regime to another. The quantitative output fields (SPC experimental, etc) don't capture this very well and it does require some subjective diagnosis of what's going on.

Tim
Curious, does this comment include data found in the SPC's mesoanalysis product?
 
Apr 18, 2005
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Norman
www.stormgasm.com
It really depends on the definition of 'high shear'. Are you talking about high 0-1 km, 0-3 km, or 0-6 km helicity values or are you merely refering to relatively fast mid-level winds, or are you refering to relatively fast storm motions. I'll take high shear (0-1km) with weak or marginal instability any day over high CAPE with weak shear, but that can be achieved along an outflow or warm frontal boundary in late June with 6,000+ CAPE. Just because storm motions are fast or mid-level winds are fast doesn't imply 'high shear'. One can find higher storm relative shear sometimes on days with 500mb winds at 30 kts over days with 500mb winds at 60 kts.

I'm not sure who started the whole "...updraft getting knocked over..." or "...updraft ripped apart..." myths, but that doesn't actually happen: if an updraft 'rips apart' it's most likely due to the updraft moving over an area with little or no surface-based instability or a stronger inversion that 'cuts-off' the updraft and then the visually identified cloud remnants of the updraft appear to get 'knocked over" or "ripped apart". I don't care if the 700mb wind are 200 kts and the updraft is completely horizontal above the boundary layer as long as surface-based air parcels are feeding the updraft there will most likely be an insanely violent tornado.

One problem that usually occurs on a 'high shear' day or day with relatively fast mid-level winds is the storm motion might be fast and an updraft might cover a great distance in a short period of time moving in and out of favorable environments along the way. All it takes to 'kill' an updraft is a small region of a locally 'stronger' inversion or a localized area of little to no surface-based instability. And if that would occur the updraft would then appear to 'knock over' or 'rip apart'.

Simon
 
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Tough question... I think it was asked a few years back and I said I prefered low CAPE-high shear... I think I've changed my mind though lol.

It might be good to specify what type of vertical shear you mean, since near-surface shear (e.g. 0-1 km SRH) has been shown to discriminate much more strongly between sig tornadic and non tornadic storms than deep layer shear. I assume that by shear you generally meant a measure of SRH in your original question, or shear near the surface.

Vertical pressure perturbations associated with strong vertical shear can in some cases seem to go a long way to enhance supercell updraft strength/accelerations, allowing for tornadoes in environments of marginal total instability... or even in environments with relatively stable low levels (i.e. significant CIN).

Regarding the general "low CAPE high shear" environment alluded to in your question... I tend to loathe these environments if they are characterized by very strong deep layer shear (e.g. 0-6 km bulk shear > 80 kts) but there isn't strong low-level shear present (e.g. 0-1 km SRH > 250 m2/s2) as well; storms tend to be strung out with tornadoes not nearly as common. Meanwhile, if you've got fairly strong SRH coupled with moderate to strong deep layer shear... supercells seem to thrive far better within marginal total instability environments and more productive w.r.t. tornadoes.

I'd probably generally prefer high CAPE-low shear rather than low CAPE-high shear, as long as low-level stability (CIN) isn't out of control (refer to the mention of Midwestern cap busts above... those have bitten me more than once and are no fun at all). Same as with shear, in a lot of cases CAPE in the lowest few km can be as important as total CAPE... illustrated pretty well by the typical Davies cold core setup with weak CAPE but a good chunk of it rooted below 3 km.

The other good thing about high CAPE-low shear environments is, forcing mechanisms tend to be more subtle and there is far less competition among storms and less rarely a question of convective mode... not to mention fewer storms to choose from. :)
 
Apr 18, 2005
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Norman
www.stormgasm.com
Another thing to consider is 'very high CAPE' environments like environments with 5000 or 6000+ SBCAPE: storms in these environments can completely alter regional low-level wind field and produce high 0-1 km SRHEL values like Jarrel, TX in 1997, Central IL in June of 2004, Southcentral KS on May 12, 2004, etc...

I said above that I usually prefer to chase high shear low instability areas, but I, also, like to chase regions of forecasted relatively weak shear with insane instability.
 
If I want to just see a modest storm in North Dakota then give me instability over shear. If I want a bona fide supercell in North Dakota and chance at a tornado then give me shear over instability. Obviously you will need some combination of instability and shear to get a rotating updraft. Shear seemingly wins nearly every time in North Dakota. High CAPE days with light synoptic shear will yield some towers and hail but very few tornadoes. The exceptions producing tornadoes are almost always along some preexisting OFB from morning convection or a storm ahead of the cell eventually producing the tornado. The former is easy to target but is usually boom or bust as the cap is stronger behind the morning crud. The latter is nearly impossible to target and is really only conducive for a local chase. I've been burned several times heading for the higher CAPE/lower shear environment in, say, southeast ND when the EF2 is grinding away 150 miles north in the lower CAPE/higher shear environment. The tail-end Charlie storms here tend to be more isolated, offer better visibility, are nice to look at but also seem to produce few tornadoes perhaps because the best shear is up the road.
 

Jay McCoy

EF5
Dec 6, 2003
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I'm not sure who started the whole "...updraft getting knocked over..." or "...updraft ripped apart..." myths, but that doesn't actually happen: if an updraft 'rips apart' it's most likely due to the updraft moving over an area with little or no surface-based instability or a stronger inversion that 'cuts-off' the updraft and then the visually identified cloud remnants of the updraft appear to get 'knocked over" or "ripped apart". I don't care if the 700mb wind are 200 kts and the updraft is completely horizontal above the boundary layer as long as surface-based air parcels are feeding the updraft there will most likely be an insanely violent tornado.
Simon
If your saying an updraft wont be leaned over and ripped apart by strong shear vs weak instability then your nuts. I have seen it hundreds of times. Ofcourse its about lack of instability..hence the comment "strong shear vs low cape". I have seen so many storms start out looking great but once the shear takes effect it leans over and get stretched out and torn apart. The instability isnt strong enough to overcome the upper level winds and keep the updraft upright.
 
Jan 29, 2004
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Canton, Ohio
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I'm not an expert, but I'll agree with some of the concensus here. I'll take high cape over low cape and high shear. I've seen many a high shear days with low cape that turn to crap real quick. You'll either have storms that dont form because of lack of instability, or they form and they're tore apart because the instability isnt high enough to keep the updraft towers in the vertical.
 
Putting personal preferences for chasing aside, technically speaking strong shear through the part of the atmospheric sounding with the most CAPE will cause the most pronounced dynamic enhancement of the updraughts.

Most winter tornadoes here in the UK occur with very modest CAPE (<500 J/Kg) but high shear. And last summer, an EF4 tornado occurred in NE France overnight on a shallow frontal wave, with just a few hundred J/Kg of CAPE, but very high low-level directional and speed shear.
 
Apr 18, 2005
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Norman
www.stormgasm.com
"The instability isnt strong enough to overcome the upper level winds and keep the updraft upright." -Jay McCoy

The statement above is false. I tried to make it very simple: shear did not "kill the updraft", the lack of instability or an inversion "killed" the updrafts you've seen "hundreds of times" in high shear environments; in which case I would call those environments with High Shear and No instability instead of High shear and weak instability. And then after the updraft is no longer surface-based the remnant cloud debris of the updraft might appear to be "knocked over" or "ripped apart". I don't really care if you've seen it "hundreds of times" you don't understand the processes responsible for the demise of a storm in a low CAPE environment. Don't blame the shear, blame the lack or non-existance of instability.

It's a person's own preference whether to like high CAPE/low shear environments over low CAPE/high shear environments, but 'make believe' science like 'shear knocking over' or 'ripping apart' updrafts when instability is present is incorrect rhetoric.

"If your saying an updraft wont be leaned over and ripped apart by strong shear vs weak instability then your nuts." - Jay McCoy

And before you call me 'nuts' try taking a few thermodynamic and fluid dynamic courses....:D
 
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Jay McCoy

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Dec 6, 2003
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I understand the process just fine. This isnt my 1st rodeo. Ive been at this for 25 years. No matter how you try and explain it its the same process. There is not enough instability to overcome the strong shear so yes the updraft gets leaned over and ripped apart. Its not zero instability just low instability. I have seen 2000+ cape environments where shear was still just too strong. Have you never seen a storm go up and get bent over to about 75 degress or more due to midlevel or upper level winds?? If there isnt enough instability then it cant overcome those winds yet on days where instability is the same but shear is less there is no issue with the storm maintaining an upright updraft. I think we are saying the same thing but in different terms. It all boils down to low instability and strong shear.
 
Nov 18, 2006
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Chicago, IL
I would rather bank on a high instibility low shear event. Around these parts we get dozens of insane-o shear setups tossed our way but with no or little instibility and more often than not nothing happens. [hell thats the case later on today!]

Then you think about days like 4-20-04 and you get lured out there anyways...just in case something makes the storms pop, and if they do they go insane. Often times its a losing gamble, but can pay off greatly if it happens. I will bank on a setup like that if its local, but wont drive to the plains for a similar setup.

Plus allot of insane-o shear setups yield fast storm motions. So Im a fan of the instibility setups for sure. As we all know though, you cant have too much of one without the other...so its all about finding a good balance of the two.
 

Brandon Goforth

I understand the process just fine. This isnt my 1st rodeo. Ive been at this for 25 years. No matter how you try and explain it its the same process. There is not enough instability to overcome the strong shear so yes the updraft gets leaned over and ripped apart. Its not zero instability just low instability. I have seen 2000+ cape environments where shear was still just too strong. Have you never seen a storm go up and get bent over to about 75 degress or more due to midlevel or upper level winds?? If there isnt enough instability then it cant overcome those winds yet on days where instability is the same but shear is less there is no issue with the storm maintaining an upright updraft. I think we are saying the same thing but in different terms. It all boils down to low instability and strong shear.
I agree, I'll take high instability. I haven't had a lot of luck with low instability and very high shear in the past, and struggling updrafts have had much to do with it...whereas very high instability days often find a way to produce even with low amounts of shear...at least in my past experiences, but to each their own.
 
Mar 21, 2005
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Kearney, NE
I'm not sure of the original poster's experience level and whether this should have been asked in the beginner's forum instead. If the o.p. is a beginner, I think we should mention that there are lots of times where you can have huge CAPE numbers and nothing happens. Or the storms don't automagically form in the areas of the highest CAPE. They form where the three necessary ingredients come together and any CIN is overcome.
 
I don't care if the 700mb wind are 200 kts and the updraft is completely horizontal above the boundary layer as long as surface-based air parcels are feeding the updraft there will most likely be an insanely violent tornado.
I'm not sure I understand. If the updraft was to be completely horizontal, wouldn't that imply that it's no longer buoyant (unless the downstream airmass was cooler)? Wouldn't that also prevent the continuation of moist processes, such as condensation?

If updraft parcels are pushed too far downstream by strong vertical shear, doesn't that also limit the vertical depth of the cloud layer?
 
Apr 18, 2005
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Norman
www.stormgasm.com
I'm not sure I understand. If the updraft was to be completely horizontal, wouldn't that imply that it's no longer buoyant (unless the downstream airmass was cooler)? Wouldn't that also prevent the continuation of moist processes, such as condensation?

If updraft parcels are pushed too far downstream by strong vertical shear, doesn't that also limit the vertical depth of the cloud layer?
Making this really basic: In theory it doesn't matter what happens to the air parcels in the updraft past 700mb, because there would be a 'steady stream' of air parcels rising from the surface to the 700mb level... in fact, if the 700mb level had a homogenous temperature over a large region the updraft would be more intense with the 'old' rising air parcels constantly being 'wisked away' in the horizontal at 200kts and fresh relatively cold and 'untainted' 700mb air replacing the air above the updraft.

Simon
 
Aug 9, 2008
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My .02 - I generalize a bit - those of you that know more, feel free to reeducate me on the details. It's been a while since I took a thermo class. :)

What Jay describes occurs not because of weak instability or strong shear - it happens when (as Simon mentioned) a strong, dry inversion occurs atop a deep boundary layer.

When the boundary layer is sufficiently deep enough to allow surface-based parcels to reach saturation, condense, and accelerate vertically prior to reaching the inversion level (a reason to pay attention to 0-3km CAPE values along with surface-based CINH), strong convective development occurs in the form of an intense Cu tower. If the inversion aloft is very strong, though, the presense of suddenly-warmer air relative to the rising parcel causes the parcel to decelerate, lose all vertical momentum, and dissipate as it gets blown downwind within the dry region of the atmosphere just above the inversion. This creates the visual appearance of a solid surface-based tower getting "sheared off" by winds aloft when neither the degree of shear nor the total amount of instability through the entire depth of the troposphere had any direct influence on its demise... just that darned evil cap.

In terms of instability vs. shear: Supercells occur in high instability/low shear environments; and they occur in low instability/high shear environments. It takes a balance between storm-relative shear and effective instability for supercells to maintain themselves. My preference boils down to one basic thought: With strong instability (given zero CINH) and no shear, there are storms, but no tornadoes. With strong shear and no instability, there are no storms.

For that reason I will always slightly favor stronger instability over strong shear, while respecting the favorable effect of strong shear in certain situations (e.g. cold core setups.) Finding the area where shear/instability is maximized and balanced is key; indices such as the energy-helicity index and bulk Richardson number are important in that aspect.
 

Tomas Pucik

From European perspective, I would say I prefer the high shear situations, maybe just for the reason that we rarely get 2000+ J/kg of MLCAPE ( I would say that 1000 J/kg is already a HIGH latent instability). Moreover, I have seen quite a lot of situations in high shear but low CAPE and they did produce pretty severe weather ( 10 cm hail in diameter came from supercell that had around 800 J/kg of MLCAPE but 25 m/s + in deep layer shear and nice veering wind profile)

I think that one factor has beem omitted in this discussion and that is amount of lift - I think that strong impulse and its lifting contribution can really compensate for the marginal release of instability.;) Without the lift, storms will not sustain themselves in the strong shear but otherwise, if the lift is strong, often even without much instability, strongly forced convection and even including tornadic supercells, can occur.
 
Making this really basic: In theory it doesn't matter what happens to the air parcels in the updraft past 700mb, because there would be a 'steady stream' of air parcels rising from the surface to the 700mb level... in fact, if the 700mb level had a homogenous temperature over a large region the updraft would be more intense with the 'old' rising air parcels constantly being 'wisked away' in the horizontal at 200kts and fresh relatively cold and 'untainted' 700mb air replacing the air above the updraft.

Simon
Ah okay, makes more sense. I was searching Google for information, but couldn't find anything explicit about updraft tilt dynamics.