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jet stream

jet stream

Jet streams are currents of air high above the Earth


4 - 12+


Earth Science, Meteorology, Physics

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Morgan Stanley

Jet streams are currents of air high above the Earth. They move eastward at altitudes of about 8 to 15 kilometers (5 to 9 miles). They form where large temperature differences exist in the atmosphere.

An air current is a flowing movement of air within a larger body of air. Air currents flow in the atmosphere, the layers of air surrounding the Earth. They form because the sun heats the Earth unevenly. As the sun beams down on the Earth, it warms some areas, particularly the tropics, more than others, such as the poles. As the Earth is heated, it warms the air just above it. The warmed air expands and becomes lighter than the surrounding air. It rises, creating a warm air current. Cooler, heavier air then pushes in to replace the warm air, forming a cool air current. Jet streams are air currents in the highest part of the atmosphere.

The Atmosphere

The atmosphere has a layered structure. From the Earth upward, the layers are the troposphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere, the thermosphere, and the exosphere, which merges with thin gases of space. The boundaries between the layers are not sharply defined, and they vary with latitude and season.

Weather occurs in the troposphere. On average, this layer extends to an altitude of about 10 kilometers (6 miles), ranging from less than 6 kilometers (4 miles) at the poles to about 20 kilometers (12 miles) at the Equator. The top of the troposphere is higher in summer than in winter. Because the troposphere contains most of the atmospheres water vapor, clouds usually form in this layer. Temperature decreases rapidly in the troposphere as altitude increases.

The suns rays pass easily through the troposphere. It is not heated directly by the sun, but by the Earth. The troposphere absorbs heat that is radiated from the Earth into the atmosphere. Various gases in the troposphere, such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane, trap this radiated heat and dont let it escape into space. The warming of the atmosphere through this heat absorption is known as the greenhouse effect.

The boundary between the turbulent troposphere and the calm, cold stratosphere is called the tropopause. Jet streams travel in the tropopause.

Jet Stream

Jet streams are some of the strongest winds in the atmosphere. Their speeds usually range from 129 to 225 kilometers per hour (80 to 140 miles per hour), but they can reach more than 443 kilometers per hour (275 miles per hour). They are faster in winter when the temperature differences between tropical, temperate, and polar air currents are greater.

At most times in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, there are two jet streams: a subtropical jet stream centered at about 30 degrees latitude and a polar-front jet stream whose position varies with the boundary between polar and temperate air. A reverse jet stream blows toward the west in tropical high altitudes during the Northern Hemispheres summer. It is associated with the heating of the Asian continent and may help bring summer monsoons to the Indian Ocean.

Fast Fact

Into Thin Air
The freezing, powerful winds that whip the top of Mt. Everest, the world's tallest mountain, are actually jet streams. Jet streams can be so cold, and so strong, that climbers cannot leave the shelter of their tents.

Fast Fact

Pilots Go With the Flow
Jet streams are so fast and powerful that airplanes have difficulty flying against them. Pilots either fly with the jet stream or above it; they do not attempt to fly against it.

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Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel
Santani Teng
Hilary Hall
Tara Ramroop
Erin Sprout
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Hilary Costa
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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