Island convection and its many shapes and forms: a closer look at cloud trails

Despite decades of research, convection continues to be one of the major sources of uncertainty in weather and climate models. This is because convection occurs across scales that are smaller than the numerical grids used to integrate these models – in other words, the convection is not resolved in the model. However, its role in the vertical transport of heat, moisture, and momentum could still be important for phenomena that are resolved so the impact of convection is estimated from a set of diagnosed parameters (i.e. a parameterisation scheme).

As the community moves toward modelling with smaller numerical grids, convection can be partially resolved. This numerical regime consisting of partially resolved convection is sometimes called the ‘Convection Grey Zone’. New parameterisations for convection are required for the convection grey zone as the underlying assumptions for existing parameterisations are no longer valid.

With smaller grid spacing, other important processes are better represented – for example, the interaction with the surface. In some coarse climate models, many islands are so small that they are neglected altogether. We know that islands regularly force different kinds of convection and so they offer a real-world opportunity to study the kind of locally driven convection that can now be resolved in operational weather models. My thesis aims to take existing research on small islands a step further by considering the problem from the perspective of convection parameterisation.

Figure 1. Topographic map of Bermuda showing the coastline in blue, elevation above sea level in grey shading, and the highest elevation is marked by a red triangle.

Bermuda (where I’m from) is a small, relatively flat island located in the western North Atlantic Ocean (e.g. Fig. 1). Cloud trails (CT) here have been unwittingly incorporated into a local legend surrounding an 18th century heist during the American Revolution. This plot to steal British gunpowder to help the American revolutionaries involved the American merchant ‘Captain Morgan’, whose ghost is said to haunt Bermuda on hot, humid summer evenings when dark cloud looms over the east end of the island. This legend is where the local name for the cloud trail “Morgan’s Cloud” comes from (BWS Glossary, 2019).

This story highlights what a CT might look like from a ground observer – a dark cloud which hangs over one end of the island. In fact, CT could only be observed from the ground until research aircraft became feasible in the 1940s and 50s. Aircraft measurements revealed the internal structure of the CT including an associated plume of warmer, drier air immediately downwind of the island.

In the coming decades, the combination of publicly available high-quality satellite imagery and computing advances introduced new avenues for research. This allowed case studies of one-off events and short satellite climatologies constructed by hand (e.g. Nordeen et al., 2001).

Observed from space, CTs look like bands of cloud that stream downwind of, and appear anchored to, small islands. They can be found downwind of small islands around the world, mainly in the tropics and subtropics.

Figure 2. (Johnston et al., 2018) Observations from visible satellite imagery showing (a) an example CT, (b) an example NT, and (c) an example obscured scene. Imagery from GOES-13 0.64 micron visible channel. In each instance a wind barb indicating the wind speed (knots) and direction. Full feathers on the wind barbs represent 10 kts, and half feathers 5 kts.

In my thesis, we design an algorithm to automate the objective classification of satellite imagery into one of three categories (Fig. 2): CT, NT (Non-Trail), and OB (Obscured). We find that the algorithm results are comparable to manually classified satellite imagery and can construct a much longer climatology of CT occurrence quickly and objectively (Johnston et al., 2018). The algorithm is applied to satellite imagery of Bermuda for May through October of 2012-2016.

We find that CT occurrence peaks in the afternoon and in July. This highlights the strong link to the solar cycle. Furthermore, radiosonde measurements taken via weather balloon by the Bermuda Weather Service show that cloud base height (which is controlled by the low-level humidity) is too high for NT days. This reduces cloud formation in general and prevents the CT cloud band forming. Meanwhile, large-scale disturbances result in widespread cloud cover on OB days (Johnston et al., 2018).

These observations and measurements can only tell us so much. A case CT day is then used to design numerical experiments to consider poorly observed features of the phenomenon. For example, the interplay between the warm plume, CT circulation, and the clouds themselves. These experiments are completed with very small grid spacing (i.e. 100 m vs. the ~10 km in weather models, and ~50 km in climate models). This allows us to confidently simulate both convection and a small island without the use of parameterisations.

Within the boundary layer which buffers the impacts from surface on the free atmosphere, a circulation forms downwind of the heated island. We show that this circulation consists of near-surface convergence, which leads to a band of ascent, and a region of divergence near the top of the boundary layer. This circulation acts as a coherent structure tying the boundary layer to convection in the free atmosphere above.

Further experiments which target the relationship between the island heating, low-level humidity, and wind speed have been completed. These experiments reveal a range of circulation responses. For instance, responses associated with no cloud, mostly passive cloud, and strongly precipitating cloud can result.

We are now using the set of CT experiments to develop a set of expectations upon which existing and future convection parameterisation schemes can be tested and evaluated. We plan to use a selection of the CT experiments with grid spacing increased to values consistent with current operational grey zone models. We believe that this will help to highlight deficiencies in existing parameterisation schemes and focus efforts for the improvement of future schemes.

Further Reading:

Bermuda Weather Service (BWS) Glossary, accessed 2019: Morgan’s Cloud/Morgan’s Cloud (Story).

Johnston, M. C., C. E. Holloway, and R. S. Plant, 2018: Cloud Trails Past Bermuda: A Five-Year Climatology from 2012-2016. Mon. Wea. Rev., 146, 4039-4055,

Matthews, S., J. M. Hacker, J. Cole, J. Hare, C. N. Long, and R. M. Reynolds, 2007: Modification of the atmospheric boundary layer by a small island: Observations from Nauru. Mon. Wea. Rev., 135, 891-905,

Nordeen, M. K., P. Minnis, D. R. Doelling, D. Pethick, and L. Nguyen, 2001: Satellite observations of cloud plumes generated by Nauru. Geophys. Res. Lett., 28, 631-634,

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