To the Right, To the Right (The Coriolis Effect)

Understanding the Direction Weather Travels On a Rotating Earth

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The Coriolis force describes the ...of all free-moving objects, including wind, to deflect to the right of their path of motion in the Northern Hemisphere (and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere). Because the Coriolis effect is an apparent motion (dependent on the position of the observer), it isn't the easiest thing to visualize the effect on planetary scale winds. Through this tutorial, you will gain an understanding of the reason winds are deflected to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere.

The History

To begin, the Coriolis effect was named after Gaspard Gustave de Coriolis who first described the phenomenon in 1835.

Winds blow as a result of a difference in pressure. This is known as the pressure gradient force. Think of it this way: If you squeeze a balloon at one end, the air automatically follows the path of least resistance and works towards an area of lower pressure. Release your grip and the air flows back to the area you (previously) squeezed. Air works in much the same way. In the atmosphere, high and low pressure centers mimic the squeezing done by your hands in the balloon example. The greater the difference between two areas of pressure, the higher the wind speed.

Coriolis Make Veer to the Right

Now, let’s imagine you are far away from the earth and you are observing a storm moving towards an area. Since you are not connected to the ground in any way, you are observing the rotation of the earth as an outsider. You see everything moving as a system as the earth travels around at a speed of approximately 1070 mph (1670 km/hr) at the equator. You would notice no change in the direction of the storm. The storm would appear to travel in a straight line.

However, on the ground, you are traveling at the same speed as the planet, and you are going to see the storm from another perspective. This is due largely to the fact that the rotational speed of the earth depends on your latitude. To find the rotational speed where you live, take the cosine of your latitude, and multiply it by the speed at the equator, or go to the Ask an Astrophysicist site for a more detailed explanation. For our purposes, you basically need to know that objects on the equator travel faster and farther in a day than objects at higher or lower latitudes.

Now, imagine that you are hovering exactly over the North Pole in space. The rotation of the earth, as seen from the vantage point of the North Pole, is counterclockwise. If you were to throw a ball to an observer at a latitude of about 60 degrees North on a non-rotating earth, the ball would travel in a straight line to be caught by a friend. However, since the earth is rotating underneath you, the ball you throw would miss your target because the earth is rotating your friend away from you! Keep in mind, the ball is STILL traveling in a straight line - but the force of rotation makes it appear that the ball is being deflected to the right.

Coriolis Southern Hemisphere

The opposite is true in the Southern Hemisphere. Imagine standing at the South Pole and seeing the rotation of the earth. The earth would appear to rotate in a clockwise direction. If you don’t believe it, try taking a ball and spinning it on a string.

  1. Attach a small ball to a string of about 2 feet in length.
  2. Spin the ball counterclockwise above your head and look up.
  3. Although you are spinning the ball counterclockwise and DID NOT change direction, by looking up at the ball it appears to be going clockwise from the center point!
  4. Repeat the process by looking down at the ball. Notice the change?

In fact, spin direction does not change, but it appears to have changed. In the southern Hemisphere, the observer throwing a ball to a friend would see the ball being deflected to the left. Again, remember that the ball is in fact traveling in a straight line.

If we use the same example again, imagine now that your friend has moved farther away. Since the earth is roughly spherical, the equatorial region must travel a greater distance in the same 24 hour period than an area of higher latitude. The speed, then, of the equatorial region is greater.

A number of weather events owe their movement to the Coriolis force, including:

  • the counter-clockwise spin of low pressure areas (in the Northern Hemisphere)

Updated by Tiffany Means

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Your Citation
Oblack, Rachelle. "To the Right, To the Right (The Coriolis Effect)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Oblack, Rachelle. (2020, August 26). To the Right, To the Right (The Coriolis Effect). Retrieved from Oblack, Rachelle. "To the Right, To the Right (The Coriolis Effect)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).