Tracking the Tropics: What is wind shear and how does it affect hurricanes?

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Wind shear is a term that comes up often when tracking tropical storms and hurricanes but it’s not a readily-understood term.

Wind shear refers to varying wind directions with height or varying wind speeds with height but can also be a combination of the two. Forecasters look at wind shear when tracking potential severe weather and tropical cyclones.

Strong winds and varying wind directions will typically hinder tropical development. Stronger wind shear can even rip storms apart completely.

Shear on a weaker storm

If a storm is weak or is still in the development stages and runs into stronger upper level winds, the wind shear would likely prevent the storm from further intensification and could even weaken the storm entirely.

Vertically speaking, the upper level winds will push the top of the storm in the direction the winds are traveling leaving the low level center of the weak or developing storm exposed. The wind shear will prevent the winds from wrapping around the center of the storm creating the counterclockwise flow we talk about.

Shear on a stronger storm

Stronger, mature hurricanes are able to withstand wind shear better than weaker systems. Major hurricanes are more protected by their own circulation since it is ongoing and well-defined. However, wind shear that is strong enough will again tilt the storm possibly preventing further intensification. If the upper level winds are strong enough, they might weaken the storm some but may not dissipate it entirely like a weaker system.

Wind shear in the path of a hurricane of any magnitude is one variable forecasters look at when forecasting the strength a storm. This can tell a meteorologist whether the storm has a chance of strengthening or being weakened.

Tracking the Tropics is keeping you informed throughout the Atlantic hurricane season. Our team streams live every Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET.

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