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Published November 2015 | Published
Journal Article Open

Superrotation in Terrestrial Atmospheres


Atmospheric superrotation with prograde equatorial winds and an equatorial angular momentum maximum is ubiquitous in planetary atmospheres. It is clear that eddy fluxes of angular momentum toward the equator are necessary to generate it. But under what conditions superrotation arises has remained unclear. This paper presents simulations and a scaling theory that establish conditions under which superrotation occurs in terrestrial atmospheres. Whether superrotation arises depends on the relative importance of factors that favor or disfavor superrotation. Convection preferentially generates Rossby waves near the equator, where the Rossby number is O(1). Since the Rossby waves transport angular momentum toward their source regions, this favors superrotation. Meridional temperature gradients preferentially lead to baroclinic instability and wave generation away from the equator. Eddy transport of angular momentum toward the baroclinic source region implies transport out of low latitudes, which disfavors superrotation. Simulations with an idealized GCM show that superrotation tends to arise when the equatorial convective generation of wave activity and its associated eddy angular momentum flux convergence exceed the baroclinic eddy angular momentum flux divergence. Convective and baroclinic wave activity generation is related through scaling arguments to mean-flow properties, such as planetary rotation rates and meridional temperature gradients. The scaling arguments show, for example, that superrotation is favored when the off-equatorial baroclinicity and planetary rotation rates are low, as they are, for example, on Venus. Similarly, superrotation is favored when the convective heating strengthens, which may account for the superrotation seen in extreme global warming simulations.

Additional Information

© 2015 American Meteorological Society. Manuscript received 22 January 2015, in final form 2 July 2015. Some of the scaling results in this paper were presented at the 18th Conference on Atmospheric and Oceanic Fluid Dynamics in 2011. The research was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation through Grant AGS-1049201 and a Graduate Research Fellowship.

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