jet stream, narrow, swift currents or tubes of air found at heights ranging from 7 to 8 mi (11.3–12.9 km) above the surface of the earth. They are caused by great temperature differences between adjacent air masses. There are four major jet streams. Although discontinuous at some points, they circle the globe at middle and polar latitudes, both in each hemisphere. The mean position of the stream in the Northern Hemisphere is between lat. 20 and 50 degrees N; the polar stream is between lat 30 and 70 degrees N. Wind speeds average 35 mi (56.3 km) per hr in summer and 75 mi (120.7 km) per hr in winter, although speeds as high as 200 mi (321.9 km) per hr have been recorded. Instead of moving along a straight line, the jet stream flows in a wavelike fashion; the waves propagate eastward (in the Northern Hemisphere) at speeds considerably slower than the wind speed itself. Since the progress of an airplane is aided or impeded depending on whether tail winds or head winds are encountered, in the Northern Hemisphere the jet stream is sought by eastbound aircraft, in order to gain speed and save fuel, and avoided by westbound aircraft.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.