A balanced approach to modelling rotating stably stratified geophysical flows

David Gerard Dritschel, Alvaro Viúdez

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We describe a new approach to modelling three-dimensional rotating stratified flows under the Boussinesq approximation. This approach is based on the explicit conservation of potential vorticity, and exploits the underlying leading-order geostrophic and hydrostratic balances inherent in these equations in the limit of small Froude and Rossby numbers. These balances are not imposed, but instead are used to motivate the use of a pair of new variables expressing the departure from geostrophic and hydrostratic balance. These new variables are the ageostrophic horizontal vorticity components, i.e. the vorticity not directly associated with the displacement of isopycnal surfaces. The use of potential vorticity and ageostrophic horizontal vorticity, rather than the usual primitive variables of velocity and density, reveals a deep mathematical structure and appears to have advantages numerically. This change of variables results in a diagnostic equation, of Monge-Amp re type, for one component of a vector potential phi, and two Poisson equations for the other two components. The curl of phi gives the velocity field while the divergence of phi is proportional to the displacement of isopycnal surfaces. This diagnostic equation makes transparent the conditions for both static and inertial stability, and may change form from (spatially) elliptic to (spatially) hyperbolic even when the flow is statically and inertially stable. A numerical method based on these new variables is developed and used to examine the instability of a horizontal elliptical shear zone (modelling a jet streak). The basic-state flow is in exact geostrophic and hydrostratic balance. Given a small perturbation however, the shear zone destabilizes by rolling up into a street of vortices and radiating inertia-gravity waves.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)123-150
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Fluid Mechanics
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2003


  • Potential-vorticity
  • 2-Dimensional Flows
  • Gravity-waves
  • Turbulence
  • Dynamics
  • Surgery


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