Polar lows – moist-baroclinic cyclones developing in four different vertical wind shear environments
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionWeather and Climate Dynamics (WCD). 2021, 2, 19-36. 10.5194/wcd-2-19-2021
Polar lows are intense mesoscale cyclones that develop in polar marine air masses. Motivated by the large variety of their proposed intensification mechanisms, cloud structure, and ambient sub-synoptic environment, we use self-organising maps to classify polar lows. The method is applied to 370 polar lows in the north-eastern Atlantic, which were obtained by matching mesoscale cyclones from the ERA-5 reanalysis to polar lows registered in the STARS dataset by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. ERA-5 reproduces most of the STARS polar lows. We identify five different polar-low configurations which are characterised by the vertical wind shear vector, the change in the horizontal-wind vector with height, relative to the propagation direction. Four categories feature a strong shear with different orientations of the shear vector, whereas the fifth category contains conditions with weak shear. This confirms the relevance of a previously identified categorisation into forward- and reverse-shear polar lows. We expand the categorisation with right- and left-shear polar lows that propagate towards colder and warmer environments, respectively. For the strong-shear categories, the shear vector organises the moist-baroclinic dynamics of the systems. This is apparent in the low-pressure anomaly tilting with height against the shear vector and the main updrafts occurring along the warm front located in the forward-left direction relative to the shear vector. These main updrafts contribute to the intensification through latent heat release and are typically associated with comma-shaped clouds. Polar-low situations with a weak shear, which often feature spirali-form clouds, occur mainly at decaying stages of the development. We thus find no evidence for hurricane-like intensification of polar lows and propose instead that spirali-form clouds are associated with a warm seclusion process.