Internal interannual variability of the winter polar vortex in a simple model of the seasonally evolving stratosphere

Luke A. Hatfield, Richard K. Scott

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We investigate persistent low-frequency variability of the stratospheric winter polar vortex in a rotating spherical shallow-water model under the action of topographic wave-forcing and radiative cooling to a simple time-varying equilibrium state representative of the seasonal cycle in solar heating. A range of modes of variability is obtained, dependent on wave forcing amplitude and characterized by the distribution of quiescent and disturbed winters, defined as winters in which the vortex is either close to radiative equilibrium, with low planetary wave amplitude, or else strongly disturbed from equilibrium by the wave forcing. At low forcing amplitude the vortex is typically quiescent every year, while at higher amplitude it is typically disturbed; in both cases there is little year-to-year variation of the vortex state. For a range of intermediate forcing amplitudes, however, the vortex transitions between quiescent and disturbed states from one winter to the next with a persistent and well-defined pattern of variability. To investigate the extent to which the low-frequency variability found here may be explained in terms of a low-latitude flywheel mechanism, we conduct additional experiments varying a linear drag on the zonal mean flow in the tropics and find that sufficiently strong drag can completely suppress the variability. The robustness of the variability is demonstrated by further experiments using a modified radiative equilibrium profile, associated with a tropical westerly flow: similar variability is obtained but the modified profile is less effective at constraining the tropical flow from a persistent easterly acceleration.
Original languageEnglish
JournalQuarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society
VolumeEarly View
Early online date6 Aug 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Aug 2019


  • Low-frequency variability
  • Polar vortex
  • Seasonal cycle
  • Shallow-water model


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