Wind Shear: Definition & Causes

Instructor: Danielle Reid

Danielle has taught middle school science and has a doctorate degree in Environmental Health

Sometimes when flying a plane, a pilot may encounter wind shear. What does it mean when a pilot faces this natural weather phenomenon? Discover what wind shear is and the factors that contribute to its formation.

What is Wind Shear?

Most of the time, we encounter the term 'wind shear' when thinking about aviation, but did you know that wind shear plays a role in the development of tornadoes? Were you aware that wind shear can tear hurricanes apart, thereby reducing their overall strength? Wind shear also helps wind turbines spin around and around at top speeds.

Collection of Wind Turbines

Wind shear occurs when there is a change in the direction or speed of wind at a given distance, usually at short distances. A varying amount of wind shear is present in the atmosphere. Strong amounts of wind shear attribute to many problems, such as tornado formations or aviation issues. Let's discuss the two primary types of wind shear.

Vertical Shear

This type of wind shear travels at different heights or in a vertical direction. When you see a strong thunderstorm rolling through, you can thank vertical wind shear for influencing such conditions. That is, during a vertical shear, the change in winds at this given height impacts (and can even diminish) the strength of a thunderstorm. This type of wind shear can influence both changes in wind direction and in speed.

Horizontal Shear

This type of wind shear occurs over a horizontal distance, usually influencing directional changes. A plane might encounter horizontal wind shear when flying near mountainous areas or when passing directly through a front. A front is simply a boundary between two different masses of air in the atmosphere. These air masses can be either cold or warm.

What Causes Wind Shear?


One not-so-pleasant side effect of a thunderstorm is the production of wind shear. In a thunderstorm, you will often see wind shear in the vicinity of a microburst. Microbursts are really small yet intense downbursts that can lead to the formation of hazardous vertical and horizontal wind shears.

Illustration of How A Microburst Forms

Think of a downburst as a fast-moving air current that flows in a downward direction. During a downburst, air will rush towards the surface of the ground at a high speed and spread out in all directions. Sometimes, the speed at which it spreads can be over 100 mph. Because wind is spreading in different directions and at varying speeds, it is common to experience wind shear near these downbursts.

Example of a Downburst and Flow of Air Currents

This explains why pilots often avoid thunderstorms in order to prevent their planes from encountering wind shear. Microbursts can produce not only extremely strong wind shear but can also create a dangerous flight environment. When the wind spreads out, an oncoming aircraft can experience increased head wind over its wings. This head wind can cause the plane to erratically lift into the air due to a sudden leap in airspeed. Keep in mind that this increase in airspeed is caused by the wind shear from the downburst.

Effects Of Wind Shear On An Aircraft

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