Wave and vortex dynamics on the surface of a sphere

Lorenzo M. Polvani, David G. Dritschel

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85 Citations (Scopus)


Motivated by the observed potential vorticity structure of the stratospheric polar vortex, we study the dynamics of linear and nonlinear waves on a zonal vorticity interface in a two-dimensional barotropic flow on the surface of a sphere (interfacial Rossby waves). After reviewing the linear problem, we determine, with the help of an iterative scheme, the shapes of steadily propagating nonlinear waves; a stability analysis reveals that they are (nonlinearly) stable up to very large amplitude. We also consider multi-vortex equilibria on a sphere: we extend the results of Thompson (1883) and show that a (latitudinal) ring of point vortices is more unstable on the sphere than in the plane; notably, no more than three point vortices on the equator can be stable. We also determine the shapes of finite-area multi-vortex equilibria, and reveal additional modes of instability feeding off shape deformations which ultimately result in the complex merger of some or all of the vortices. We discuss two specific applications to geophysical flows: for conditions similar to those of the wintertime terrestrial stratosphere, we show that perturbations to a polar vortex with azimuthal wavenumber 3 are close to being stationary, and hence are likely to be resonant with the tropospheric wave forcing; this is often observed in high-resolution numerical simulations as well as in the ozone data. Secondly, we show that the linear dispersion relation for interfacial Rossby waves yields a good fit to the phase velocity of the waves observed on Saturn's ‘ribbon’.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)35-64
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Fluid Mechanics
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1993


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