Baroclinic and barotropic instabilities in planetary atmospheres: Energetics, equilibration and adjustment

Peter Read, Daniel Kennedy, Neil Lewis, Helene Scolan, Fachreddin Tabataba-Vakili, Yixiong Wang, Susie Wright, Roland Young

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Baroclinic and barotropic instabilities are well known as the mechanisms responsible for the production of the dominant energy-containing eddies in the atmospheres of Earth and several other planets, as well as Earth's oceans. Here we consider insights provided by both linear and nonlinear instability theories into the conditions under which such instabilities may occur, with reference to forced and dissipative flows obtainable in the laboratory, in simplified numerical atmospheric circulation models and in the planets of our solar system. The equilibration of such instabilities is also of great importance in understanding the structure and energetics of the observable circulation of atmospheres and oceans. Various ideas have been proposed concerning the ways in which baroclinic and barotropic instabilities grow to a large amplitude and saturate whilst also modifying their background flow and environment. This remains an area that continues to challenge theoreticians and observers, though some progress has been made. The notion that such instabilities may act under some conditions to adjust the background flow towards a critical state is explored here in the context of both laboratory systems and planetary atmospheres. Evidence for such adjustment processes is found relating to baroclinic instabilities under a range of conditions where the efficiency of eddy and zonal-mean heat transport may mutually compensate in maintaining a nearly invariant thermal structure in the zonal mean. In other systems, barotropic instabilities may efficiently mix potential vorticity to result in a flow configuration that is found to approach a marginally unstable state with respect to Arnol'd's second stability theorem. We discuss the implications of these findings and identify some outstanding open questions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-173
Number of pages27
JournalNonlinear Processes in Geophysics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 3 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistical and Nonlinear Physics
  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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