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The dangers of gust fronts

Convective outflow boundaries emanating away from thunderstorms are generated as cold, dense air descends in downdrafts then moving outward away from the convection to produce a mesoscale cold front also known as a gust front. Some gust fronts can be completely harmless or may be a precursor for an encounter with severe turbulence and dangerous low-level convective wind shear. The direction of movement of the gust front isn’t always coincident with the general motion of the thunderstorms. If the gust front is moving in advance of the convection, it should be strictly avoided. The pilot’s best defense is to recognize and characterize the gust front using METARs, ground-based radar and visible satellite imagery.

According to research meteorologist and thunderstorm expert, Dr. Charles Doswell, “cold, stable air is the ‘exhaust’ of deep, moist convection descending in downdrafts and then spreading outward like pancake batter poured on a griddle.” As a pulse-type thunderstorm reaches a point where its updraft can no longer support the load of precipitation that has accumulated inside, the precipitation load collapses down through the original updraft area. Evaporation of some of the rain cools the downdraft, making it even more dense compared to the surrounding air. When the downdraft reaches the ground, it is deflected laterally and spreads out almost uniformly in all directions producing a gust front.

Gust front are normally seen moving away from weakening thunderstorm cores. Once a gust front forms and moves away from the convection the boundary may be detected on the NWS WSR-88D NEXRAD Doppler radar as a bow-shaped line of low reflectivity returns usually 20 dBZ or less. Outflow boundaries are low level events and do not necessarily produce precipitation. Instead, the radar is detecting the density discontinuity of the boundary itself along with any dust, insects and other debris that may be carried along with the boundary. The gust front in southwest Missouri shows up very well on the NWS radar image out of Springfield as shown below.