Coriolis Effect: Air Circulation in the Atmosphere

Coriolis Effect

The Coriolis effect is the deflection of air because of Earth’s rotation. In the northern hemisphere, air deflects to the right. But in the southern hemisphere, air veers to the left.

It’s a myth that the Coriolis effect determines the direction a toilet flushes like on the Simpsons. But the Coriolis effect does impact air circulation, weather patterns and ocean currents.

What would happen to the Coriolis effect if Earth stopped rotating? Or what would happen if it Earth’s rotation sped up?

Before we answer those questions, let’s first understand how the Coriolis effect works.

How the Coriolis effect works

Coriolis Effect

If you stand at the equator, you move at about 1000 miles per hour. But if you stand on the North Pole, you spin at a rate of 0 miles per hour.

This is because you’re basically spinning on the same spot for 24 hours straight. Either way, our bodies are used to the motion so we don’t necessarily feel the velocity.

So if an object travels through the air from the equator to the north, it will start to veer off to the right in the northern hemisphere due to Earth’s rotation. But in the southern hemisphere, it’s the opposite. It would veer off to the left.

But the Coriolis effect often refers to air circulation. So instead of hot air transferring from the equator to the colder poles, it deflects away. Eventually, air starts to swirl in a circular pattern. This circular pattern are the convection cells caused by the Coriolis effect

If Earth didn’t rotate…

Coriolis Effect No Rotation

What if the Earth didn’t rotate at all, would there still be a Coriolis effect? If the Earth didn’t rotate, warm air at the equator would simply transfer to the poles. This would be just a simple exchange of hot and cold air back and forth.

Instead of our current 6 convection cells on Earth, we would have 2 convection cells driven by thermal convection. As warm air moves from the equator to the poles, cool air from the poles would sink back down to the equator. So each hemisphere would have a convection cell on its own.

Now, what if the Earth rotated more rapidly? If Earth spun faster, what would happen to the Coriolis effect? In this case, the same fundamental concepts would hold true. Again, air veers off to the right in the northern hemisphere. But it would deflect faster.

Instead of the 6 convection cells we experience on Earth, it would have more due to a faster rotation. Simply, the number of convection cells is a function of how fast it rotates.

Air circulation patterns from the Coriolis effect

Hadley Ferrel Polar Cells

Earth has a total of 6 convection cells. Each hemisphere has 3 on its own. From 0-30° north/south, these are Hadley cells. Then from 30-60° north/south are Ferrel cells. Finally from 60-90° are the polar cells.

For Hadley cells, the sun beams down at the equator. It evaporates and begins to rise carrying water vapor. More or less, it provides rain until about 30° latitude when it loses most of its moisture.

The equator area is damp and moist. But at about 30° latitude, air is much dryer. Then at 50-60°, it’s a sub-polar low.

In the Ferrel cell, air moves north at 30° latitude, then comes down at 60° north. Air is deflected from the Coriolis effect causing the Westerlies to move east to west.

Finally, the air that comes down from the North Pole is very dry. The North Pole is like a desert because it has some of the lowest precipitation rates on the planet.

The Coriolis effect on Jupiter

Planet Jupiter

Jupiter spins at an incredible pace. The velocity at Jupiter’s equator is about 28,000 miles per hour, compared to Earth’s 1000 mph.

This means that one day on Jupiter takes a bit less than 10 hours. Because of its fast rotation and heaping size, the Coriolis effect is extraordinary in size.

Earth has 6 convection cells. Whereas Jupiter has consistent bands of air that whirl around its surface. If you’ve ever seen Jupiter, the Coriolis effect is why it has its iconic banded appearance.

Overall, weather is at an extreme on Jupiter. For example, astronomers have observed an everlasting hurricane in its atmosphere. It’s been there since the first time we’ve looked at Jupiter.


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