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Data from airborne W-band radar, thermodynamic fields from the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) Model, and air parcel back trajectories from the Hybrid Single-Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory (HYSPLIT) model are used to investigate the finescale reflectivity, vertical motion, and airmass structure of the comma head of a winter cyclone that produced 15–25 cm of snow across the U.S. Midwest on 29–30 January 2010. The comma head consisted of three vertically stacked air masses: from bottom to top, an arctic air mass of Canadian origin, a moist cloud-bearing air mass of Gulf of Mexico origin, and a drier air mass originating mostly at low altitudes over Baja California and the Mexican Plateau. The drier air mass capped the entire comma head and significantly influenced precipitation distribution and type across the storm, limiting cloud depth on the warm side, and creating instability with respect to ice-saturated ascent, cloud-top generating cells, and a seeder–feeder process on the cold side. Convective generating cells with depths of 1.5–3.0 km and vertical air velocities of 1–3 m s−1 were ubiquitous atop the cold side of the comma head. The airmass boundaries within the comma head lacked the thermal contrast commonly observed along fronts in other sectors of extratropical cyclones. The boundary between the Gulf and Canadian air masses, although quite distinct in terms of precipitation distribution, wind, and moisture, was marked by almost no horizontal thermal contrast at the time of observation. The higher-altitude airmass boundary between the Gulf of Mexico and Baja air masses also lacked thermal contrast, with the less-stable Baja air mass overriding the stable Gulf of Mexico air.




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