Wind shear is defined as a sudden change in the speed or direction of the wind with altitude. There's got to be some ratio of speed to altitude or directional change to altitude beyond which it's defined as shear, but I can't figure out what it is.

What is the actual change in wind direction or speed over altitude for a wind shift to become considered wind shear?

  • $\begingroup$ Are you looking for high-altitude wind shear, low-altitude, or both types? $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '15 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ The change in wind speed and/or direction can also occur horizontally in a wind shear. $\endgroup$
    – Sami
    Nov 17 '15 at 21:23

On one hand this has to do with how wind shear is actually reported which makes it tough to put an official value on it some times. Wind shear is often reported by pilots when they experience it on landing, takeoff or in the air. This may come in as a PIREP and be disseminated out to other pilots. When you are actually in the left seat you will see the manifestation of wind shear as a sudden loss of airspeed or severe weathervaning of the aircraft. There are many conditions that may cause a pilot to report wind shear. Since different planes at different times may experience different conditions its somewhat subjective.

The Wikipedia definition puts it at:

Airplane pilots generally regard significant wind shear to be a horizontal change in airspeed of 30 knots (15 m/s) for light aircraft, and near 45 knots (22 m/s) for airliners at flight altitude. Vertical speed changes greater than 4.9 knots (2.5 m/s) also qualify as significant wind shear for aircraft.

The FAA has a nice briefing on it here and their definition (as official as its going to get) is:

Frontal Wind Shear

As with so many things associated with weather, there is no absolute rule, but a couple of clues tell you that wind shear may occur:

  • The temperature difference across the front at the surface is 10 °F (5 °C) or more.
  • The front is moving at a speed of at least 30 knots.

Thunderstorm Wind Shear

These winds can change direction by as much as 180 degrees and reach velocities of 100 knots as far as 10 miles ahead of the storm. The gust wind speed may increase by as much as 50 percent between the surface and 1,500 feet, with most of the increase occurring in the first 150 feet.

Temperature Inversion Wind Shear

One particularly bothersome aspect of temperature inversion shears is that as the inversion dissipates, the shear plane and gusty winds move closer to the ground. In some areas of the Southwest, a 90-degree change in direction and 20- to 30-knot increases in surface winds in a few minutes are not uncommon

Wind Shear From Surface Obstructions

Some airfields are close to mountain ranges, and mountain passes are close to the final approach paths. Strong surface winds blowing through these passes can cause serious localized wind shear during the approach. The real problem with such shear is that it is almost totally unpredictable in terms of magnitude or severity

From personal experience low level wind shear can really do a number on small planes. Bigger planes with more mass will still be affected but less so from what I hear. I have seen speed drops of 15kts momentarily and heading shifts upwards of 30 degrees on final approach in a Piper Warrior in even light shear conditions.

Here is an overly dramatic (and personal favorite) rendering of a micro burst causing wind shear Illustration of a microburst over an airport (source)

Some airports (110 in the US so far) have been lucky enough to have Low Level Wind Shear Detection Systems installed which are pretty neat units, they will detect that as:

LLWAS wind shear alerts are defined as wind speed gain or loss of between 20 and 30 knots aligned with the active runway direction. "Low level" refers to altitudes of 2,000 ft (610 m) or less above ground level (AGL)

Here is a pretty neat overview from NASA of the various methods to detect it in the air.

  • $\begingroup$ To be fair, that rendering is of a micro burst (which causes wind shear), not of the general case wind shear. On a different note, as far as I understand it, while the wind speed difference would proportionally more severe for a smaller aircraft, wouldn't wind shear have more effect on larger aircraft due to momentum maintaining the air speed difference for longer than with a smaller aircraft? $\endgroup$
    – falstro
    Nov 17 '15 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ The way I understand it since the shifts are so fast the large planes simply cant be altered as fast and see less of change. Their momentum keeps them in place really. Again this also depends on control surface area and other factors. $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Nov 17 '15 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ You are correct that momentum "keep the planes going", but your conclusion is not. The momentum maintains the same speed relative to the old air; i.e. the new air is not able to accelerate the airplane as quickly as a small airplane, thus the airspeed drops (or increases, whichever way the wind changes). A small airplane has less mass and is quicker to adjust to the new air, thus sees the change for a much smaller amount of time. If the change is gradual enough, the small plane might not see a change at all. $\endgroup$
    – falstro
    Nov 17 '15 at 20:57

'Wind shear' isn't defined by a certain gradient, but by the fact that there is a change in wind speed or direction (not necessarily with altitude). When flying through a wind shift, you experience wind shear. The strength of the turbulence experienced when flying through changes in wind varies with the exact situation and size of the aircraft.

From the Pilot/Controller Glossary:

WIND SHEAR - A change in wind speed and/or wind direction in a short distance resulting in a tearing or shearing effect. It can exist in a horizontal or vertical direction and occasionally in both.

Technically, 'short distance' could imply gradient, but for all practical purposes that is over-thinking the definition and I don't think this line exists.

As voretaq7 notes, 10kts of wind fluctuation within 2000 AGL is defined as an Urgent PIREP. There is not a time-window though, so a sufficiently loose definition of instantaneous is assumed.

So to answer the question: one that you can feel.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Wind shear itself is a gradient. $\endgroup$
    – casey
    Nov 17 '15 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ @casey Yes, that's the point. The fact that there is a gradient means wind shear. Any gradient that's not zero is a change. $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '15 at 19:47
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ asking for the gradient is technically the same as asking for the definition of "short distance". $\endgroup$
    – falstro
    Nov 17 '15 at 20:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Note that there are lines of demarcation within "wind shear" - specifically, PIREPs for Wind Shear are considered "Routine" if an airspeed variation of <10 knots is noted, and "Urgent" if the airspeed variation exceeds 10 knots. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Nov 17 '15 at 20:49

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