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