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Published June 2006 | public
Journal Article Open

Self-Organization of Atmospheric Macroturbulence into Critical States of Weak Nonlinear Eddy–Eddy Interactions


It is generally held that atmospheric macroturbulence can be strongly nonlinear. Yet weakly nonlinear models successfully account for scales and structures of baroclinic eddies in Earth's atmosphere. Here a theory and simulations with an idealized GCM are presented that suggest weakly nonlinear models are so successful because atmospheric macroturbulence organizes itself into critical states of weak nonlinear eddy–eddy interactions. By modifying the thermal structure of the extratropical atmosphere such that its supercriticality remains limited, macroturbulence inhibits nonlinear eddy–eddy interactions and the concomitant inverse energy cascade from the length scales of baroclinic instability to larger scales. For small meridional surface temperature gradients, the extratropical thermal stratification and tropopause height are set by radiation and convection, and the supercriticality is less than one; for sufficiently large meridional surface temperature gradients, the extratropical thermal stratification and tropopause height are modified by baroclinic eddies such that the supercriticality does not significantly exceed one. In either case, the scale of the energy-containing eddies is similar to the scale of the linearly most unstable baroclinic waves, and eddy kinetic and available potential energies are equipartitioned. The theory and simulations point to fundamental constraints on the thermal structures and global circulations of the atmospheres of Earth and other planets, for example, by providing limits on the tropopause height and estimates for eddy scales, eddy energies, and jet separation scales.

Additional Information

© Copyright by American Meteorological Society 2006 (Manuscript received 7 June 2005, in final form 1 November 2005) We are grateful for support by the Davidow Discovery Fund, by an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, and by the National Science Foundation (Grant ATM-0450059); for computing resources provided by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation); and for comments on drafts of this paper by Paul O'Gorman and Tim DelSole. The program code for the simulations described in this paper, as well as the simulation results themselves, are available from the authors upon request.


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