National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Field Guide Glossary


Scud (or Fractus)
Small, ragged, low cloud fragments that are unattached to a larger cloud base and often seen with and behind cold fronts and thunderstorm gust fronts. Such clouds generally are associated with cool moist air, such as thunderstorm outflow.
Severe Thunderstorm
A thunderstorm which produces tornadoes, hail 1" (2.5 cm) or more in diameter, or winds of 50 knots (58 mph / 93 km/h) or more. Structural wind damage may imply the occurrence of a severe thunderstorm. See approaching (severe).
Variation in wind speed (speed shear) and/or direction (directional shear) over a short distance. Shear usually refers to vertical wind shear, i.e., the change in wind with height, but the term also is used in Doppler radar to describe changes in radial velocity over short horizontal distances.
Shelf Cloud
A low, horizontal wedge-shaped arcus cloud, associated with a thunderstorm gust front (or occasionally with a cold front, even in the absence of thunderstorms). Unlike the roll cloud, the shelf cloud is attached to the base of the parent cloud above it (usually a thunderstorm). Rising cloud motion often can be seen in the leading (outer) part of the shelf cloud, while the underside often appears turbulent, boiling, and wind-torn.
Shortwave (or Shortwave Trough)
A disturbance in the mid or upper part of the atmosphere which induces upward motion ahead of it. If other conditions are favorable, the upward motion can contribute to thunderstorm development ahead of a shortwave.
Slight Risk (of severe thunderstorms)
An area of organized severe storms, which is not widespread in coverage with varying levels of intensity. Specifically,
  • 5% probability or greater tornado probability OR
  • 15% probability for severe hail (≥1" / ≥2.5 cm) or severe wind (≥58 mph / ≥93 km/h) probability WITH OR WITHOUT 10% or greater probability of hail 2" (4.8 cm) or greater in diameter OR
  • Wind gusts 75 mph (120 km/h) or greater.

See High Risk, Moderate Risk, Enhanced Risk, Marginal Risk, General Thunderstorms, convective outlook.

A plot of the vertical profile of temperature and dew point (and often winds) above a fixed location. Soundings are used extensively in severe weather forecasting, e.g., to determine instability, locate temperature inversions, measure the strength of the cap, obtain the convective temperature, etc.
SPC - Storm Prediction Center
A national forecast center in Norman, Oklahoma, which is part of NCEP. The SPC is responsible for providing short-term forecast guidance for severe convection, excessive rainfall (flash flooding) and severe winter weather over the contiguous United States.
Speed Shear
The component of wind shear which is due to a change in wind speed with height, e.g., southwesterly winds of 20 mph at 10,000 feet (32 km/h at 3,000 meters) increasing to 50 mph at 20,000 feet (80 km/h at 6,100 meters). Speed shear is an important factor in severe weather development, especially in the middle and upper levels of the atmosphere.
Spin-up - [Slang]
A small-scale vortex initiation, such as what may be seen when a gustnado, landspout, or suction vortex forms.
Splitting Storm
A thunderstorm which splits into two storms which follow diverging paths (a left mover and a right mover). The left mover typically moves faster than the original storm, the right mover, slower. Of the two, the left mover is most likely to weaken and dissipate (but on rare occasions can become a very severe anticyclonic-rotating storm), while the right mover is the one most likely to reach supercell status.
Squall Line
A solid or nearly solid line or band of active thunderstorms.
Staccato Lightning
A CG lightning discharge which appears as a single very bright, short-duration stroke, often with considerable branching.
Steering Winds (or Steering Currents)
A prevailing synoptic scale flow which governs the movement of smaller features embedded within it.
Measured relative to a moving thunderstorm, usually referring to winds, wind shear, or helicity.
Referring to weather systems with sizes on the order of individual thunderstorms. See synoptic scale, mesoscale.
Straight-line Winds
Generally, any wind that is not associated with rotation, used mainly to differentiate them from tornadic winds.
Having extensive horizontal development, as opposed to the more vertical development characteristic of convection. Stratiform clouds cover large areas but show relatively little vertical development. Stratiform precipitation, in general, is relatively continuous and uniform in intensity (i.e., steady rain versus rain showers).
Low-level clouds, existing in a relatively flat layer but having individual elements. Elements often are arranged in rows, bands, or waves. Stratocumulus often reveals the depth of the moist air at low levels, while the speed of the cloud elements can reveal the strength of the low-level jet.
A low, generally gray cloud layer with a fairly uniform base. Stratus may appear in the form of ragged patches, but otherwise does not exhibit individual cloud elements as do cumulus and stratocumulus clouds. Fog usually is a surface-based form of stratus.
Grooves or channels in cloud formations, arranged parallel to the flow of air and therefore depicting the airflow relative to the parent cloud. Striations often reveal the presence of rotation, as in the barber pole or "corkscrew" effect often observed with the rotating updraft of an LP storm.
Sinking (downward) motion in the atmosphere, usually over a broad area.
Sub-synoptic Low
Essentially the same as mesolow.
Suction Vortex (sometimes Suction Spot)
A small but very intense vortex within a tornado circulation. Several suction vortices typically are present in a multiple-vortex tornado. Much of the extreme damage associated with violent tornadoes (EF4 and EF5 on the Enhannced Fujita scale) is attributed to suction vortices.
A thunderstorm with a persistent rotating updraft. Supercells are rare, but are responsible for a remarkably high percentage of severe weather events - especially tornadoes, extremely large hail and damaging straight-line winds. They frequently travel to the right of the main environmental winds (i.e., they are right movers). Radar characteristics often (but not always) include a hook or pendant, bounded weak echo region (BWER), V-notch, mesocyclone, and sometimes a TVS. Visual characteristics often include a rain-free base (with or without a wall cloud), tail cloud, flanking line, overshooting top, and back-sheared anvil, all of which normally are observed in or near the right rear or southwest part of the storm. Storms exhibiting these characteristics often are called classic supercells; however HP storms and LP storms also are supercell varieties.
Surface-based Convection
Convection occurring within a surface-based layer, i.e., a layer in which the lowest portion is based at or very near the earth's surface. Compare with elevated convection.
SWODY1, SWODY2, SWODY3, SWODY4-8 (sometimes pronounced swoe-dee)
The day-1, day-2, day-3 and day 4-8 convective outlooks issued by the Storm Prediction Center.
Synoptic Scale (or Large Scale)
Size scale referring generally to weather systems with horizontal dimensions of several hundred miles or more. Most high and low pressure areas seen on weather maps are synoptic-scale systems. Compare with mesoscale, storm-scale.