Surface Potential Temperature as an Analysis and Forecasting Tool

  • Eric G. Hoffman
Part of the Meteorological Monographs book series (METEOR, volume 33, No. 55)


In the last decade, Fred Sanders was often critical of current surface analysis techniques. This led to his promoting the use of surface potential temperatures to distinguish between fronts, baroclinic troughs, and nonfrontal baroclinic zones, and to the development of a climatology of surface baroclinic zones. In this paper, criticisms of current surface analysis techniques and the usefulness of surface potential temperature analyses are discussed. Case examples are used to compare potential temperature analyses and current National Centers for Environmental Prediction analyses.

The 1-yr climatology of Sanders and Hoffman is reconstructed using a composite technique. Annual and seasonal mean potential temperature analyses over the continental United States, southern Canada, northern Mexico, and adjacent coastal waters are presented. In addition, gridpoint frequencies of moderate and strong potential temperature gradients are calculated. The results of the mean potential temperature analyses show that moderate and strong surface baroclinic zones are favored along the coastlines and the slopes of the North American cordillera. Additional subsynoptic details, not found in Sanders and Hoffman, are identified. The availability of the composite results allows for the calculation of potential temperature gradient anomalies. It is shown that these anomalies can be used to identify significant frontal baroclinic zones that are associated with weak potential temperature gradients. Together the results and reviews in this paper show that surface potential temperature analyses are a valuable forecasting and analysis tool allowing analysts to distinguish and identify fronts, baroclinic troughs, and nonfrontal baroclinic zones.


Potential Temperature Potential Vorticity Eastern Slope Sierra Nevada Mountain Potential Temperature Gradient 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Ahrens, C. D., 2005: Essentials of Meteorology: An Invitation to the Atmosphere. 4th ed. Brooks/Cole, 473 pp.Google Scholar
  2. Albers, S. C., J. A. McGinley, D. L. Birkenheuer, and J. R. Smart, 1996: The Local Analysis and Prediction System (LAPS): Analyses of clouds, precipitation, and temperature. Wea. Forecasting, 11, 273–287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bell, G. D., and L. F. Bosart, 1988: Appalachian cold-air damming. Mon. Wea. Rev., 116, 137–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bjerknes, J., 1919: On the structure of moving cyclones. Geof. Publ., 1, 1–9.Google Scholar
  5. -and H. Solberg, 1922: Life cycle of cyclones and the polar front theory of atmospheric circulation. Geofys. Publ., 3, 1–18.Google Scholar
  6. Bretherton, F. P., 1966: Critical layer instability in baroclinic flows. Quart. J. Roy. Meteor. Soc., 92, 325–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Hewson, T. D., 1997: Objective identification of frontal wave cyclones. Meteor. Appl., 4, 311–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. —, 1998: Objective fronts. Meteor. Appl., 5, 37–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hoskins, B. J., and F. P. Bretherton, 1972: Atmospheric frontogenesis models: Mathematical formulation and solution. J. Atmos. Sci., 29, 11–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. -, M. E. McIntyre, and A. Robertson, 1985: On the use and significance of isentropic potential vorticity maps. Quart. J. Roy. Meteor. Soc., 111, 877–946.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Koch, S. E., M. DesJardins, and P. S. Kocin, 1983: An iterative Barnes objective map analysis scheme for use with satellite and conventional data. J. Climate Appl. Meteor., 22, 1487–1503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Mass, C. F., 1991: Synoptic frontal analysis: Time for a reassessment? Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 72, 348–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Morgan, G. M., Jr., D. G. Brunkow, and R. C. Beebe, 1975: Climatology of surface fronts. Illinois State Water Survey Circular 122, Dept. of Registration and Education, Urbana, IL, 46 pp.Google Scholar
  14. Namias, J., 1983: The history of polar front and air mass concepts in the United States—An eyewitness account. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 64, 734–755.Google Scholar
  15. O’Handley, C., and L. F. Bosart, 1996: The impact of the Appalachian Mountains on cyclonic weather systems. Part I: A climatology. Mon. Wea. Rev., 124, 1353–1373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Petterssen, S., 1940: Weather Analysis and Forecasting. 1st ed. Mc-Graw-Hill, 503 pp.Google Scholar
  17. Sanders, F., 1999: A proposed method of surface map analysis. Mon. Wea. Rev., 127, 945–955.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. -, and C. A. Doswell, 1995: A case for detailed surface analysis. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 76, 505–521.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. -, and E. G. Hoffman, 2002: A climatology of surface baroclinic zones. Wea. Forecasting, 17, 774–782.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Schumacher, P. N., D. J. Knight, and L. F. Bosart, 1996: Frontal interaction with the Appalachian Mountains. Part I: A climatology. Mon. Wea. Rev., 124, 2453–2468.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Steenburgh, W. J., and T. R. Blazek, 2001: Topographic distortion of a cold front over the Snake River plain and central Idaho mountains. Wea. Forecasting, 16, 301–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Uccellini, L. W., S. F. Corfidi, N. W. Junker, P. J. Kocin, and D. A. Olson, 1992: Report on the Surface Analysis Workshop held at the National Meteorological Center, 25–28 March 1991. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 73, 459–473.Google Scholar
  23. Wallace, J. M., and P. V. Hobbs, 1977: Atmospheric Science: An Introductory Survey. Academic Press, 467 pp.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© American Meteorological Society 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Chemical, Earth, Atmospheric, and Physical SciencesPlymouth State UniversityPlymouthUSA

Personalised recommendations