# Confusion with thermal wind mechanism

In meteorology, we know that cold air mass sinks while warm air mass rises due to density difference, resulting in higher pressure in cold air mass. This leads to a horizontal pressure gradient from cold to warm area (i.e. wind flows from cold to warm area).

However, when considering the situation for thermal wind, based on the hypsometric equation, at any same level, the pressure over cold area is lower than that over warm area, resulting in horizontal pressure gradient from warm to cold area. This is the reverse of the above situation, which is confusing. How do we explain the difference between the two situations to eliminate any contradiction?

based on the hypsometric equation, at any same level, the pressure over cold area is lower than that over warm area, resulting in horizontal pressure gradient from warm to cold area.

Not necessarily. In a colder area, the isobars are more "compressed" while in a warmer area, the isobars are more "spread out". In most examples of thermal wind, the pressure at the surface is actually the same in the cold area and in the warm area. Take a look at this image. The horizontal pressure gradient is only up in the higher altitudes. As a matter of fact, thermal wind is greater in the upper troposphere and weakens closer to the surface.

Does this contradict the concept of monsoons? No because monsoons are surface-level winds. Let's use land and sea breezes as an example since they are basically just small-scale monsoons. Take a look at this image regarding land and sea breezes. Air in the warm region rises which causes the isobars to "spread apart". A horizontal pressure gradient in the upper troposphere occurs so wind will flow from the warm area to the cooler area; this is thermal wind. Air above the cooler area sinks because it is more dense. This gives room for the thermal wind to also sink above the cooler area. The surface pressure in the cooler area is now higher than the warmer area since the sinking air is building up. A horizontal pressure gradient forms which causes wind on the surface to flow from the cooler area to the warmer area.

I hope you understand since explaining this was a bit tricky without a lot of visualization. Also, check out wind flow maps of a monsoon. On the surface, wind flows from the colder area to the hotter area. But if you check the wind flow at higher altitudes, the wind actually reverses.

Edit: Here's an analogy I just thought of. Think of the air as individual molecules. Think of these molecules as balls in an aquarium. These balls would always want to be a set distance away from other balls. If a ball is too near to another ball, they will push each other; if a ball is too far from another ball, they will try to go closer.

One end of the aquarium is hot while the other is cold. The balls in the hot part rise and build up at the upper portion of the aquarium. The balls in the cold part sink and build up at the bottom part of the aquarium. The balls build up but since they don't want to be together, they flow towards the spaces with no balls. The hot balls will glide on the ceiling of the aquarium towards the colder part where they cool down and sink. The cold balls will glide on the floor of the aquarium towards the hot part where they heat up and rise. The cycle then just keeps repeating.

The thermal wind phenomenon occurs on the ceiling of the aquarium, the monsoon/land-sea breeze phenomenon occurs on the floor of the aquarium.

• Thank you, the land/sea breeze isobars diagram attached is what is needed to explain both thermal wind and monsoon and eliminate any contradiction! Apr 12 at 15:46
• @gansub Sorry for the poor choice of words. The entire monsoon circulation is obviously not just a surface-level wind as the circulation has wind flow both in the upper and lower troposphere. I was pertaining to electroniclearner's statement in the other answer which said "cold Siberian air flows out to the ITCZ in the tropics during Boreal Winter". In that case, the winds he was pointing out was the low-level part of the monsoon circulation. Apr 12 at 16:14

"we know that cold air mass sinks while warm air mass rises due to density difference, resulting in higher pressure in cold air mass"

Wrong. Only hot enough air rises, not all hot air. It's hot enough when the entropy/potential temperature profile has a negative slope w.r.t altitude.

Your pressure in the cold region is lower than in the hot region, same as for the thermal wind. But this is due to different balancing requirements (vertical vs horizontal), so you're not comparing apples to apples here.

• It's not wrong, if you understood my point. The point about cold air mass sinking and warm air mass rising is the basis of monsoon wind flow. An example would be the Asian-Australian monsoon; during the boreal winter, cold Siberia air of higher surface air pressure flows out to the lower pressure ITCZ in the warmer tropics and Australia. My question would be why is it opposite from the thermal wind case, where cooled air mass has lower pressure than warm air mass. Apr 11 at 15:31