Global atmospheric circulation

The movement of air across the planet occurs in a specific pattern. The whole system is driven by the equator, which is the hottest part of the Earth. Air rises at the equator, leading to low pressure and rainfall. When the air reaches the edge of the atmosphere, it cannot go any further and so it travels to the north and south. The air becomes colder and denser, and falls, creating high pressure and dry conditions at around 30° north and south of the equator. Large cells of air are created in this way.

Air rises again at around 60° north and south and descends again around 90° north and south. The names of the cells are shown in the diagram.

The Hadley cells occur next to the equator. The Polar cells occur next to the North and South Poles. In between the two are the Ferrel cells.

Global atmospheric circulation creates winds across the planet and leads to areas of high rainfall, like the tropical rainforests, and areas of dry air, like deserts.

The Hadley cell

The first cell is called the Hadley cell. At the equator, the ground is intensely heated by the sun. This causes the air to rise which creates a low-pressure zone on the Earth's surface. As the air rises, it cools and forms thick cumulonimbus (storm) clouds. The air continues to rise up to the upper atmosphere, and the following then happens:

  • The air separates and starts to move both north and south towards the poles.
  • When it reaches about 30° north and south, the air cools and sinks towards the ground forming the subtropical high-pressure zone.
  • As the air sinks, it becomes warmer and drier. This creates an area of little cloud and low rainfall, where deserts are found.
  • The Hadley cell is then complete. The air completes the cycle and flows back towards the equator as the trade winds.
  • In the northern hemisphere, the winds flow to the right and are called northeast trade winds. In the southern hemisphere the winds flow to the left and are called the southeast trade winds. This is down to the Coriolis force and friction.

The Ferrel cell

The Ferrel cell occurs at higher latitudes (between 30 degrees and 60 degrees N and 30 degrees and 60 degrees S):

  • Air on the surface is pulled towards the poles, forming the warm south-westerly winds in the northern hemisphere and north-westerly winds in the southern hemisphere.
  • These winds pick up moisture as they travel over the oceans. At around 60 degrees N and 60 degrees S, they meet cold air, which has drifted from the poles.
  • The warmer air from the tropics is lighter than the dense, cold polar air and so it rises as the two air masses meet.
  • This uplift of air causes low pressure at the surface and the unstable weather conditions that are associated with the mid-latitude depressions. Much of our wet and windy weather in the UK is determined by this.

The Polar cell

At the poles, air is cooled and sinks towards the ground forming high pressure, this known as the Polar high. It then flows towards the lower latitudes. At about 60 degrees N and S, the cold polar air mixes with warmer tropical air and rises upwards, creating a zone of low pressure called the subpolar low. The boundary between the warm and cold air is called the polar front. It accounts for a great deal of the unstable weather experienced in these latitudes.