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Time Variability and Simmons–Wallace–Branstator Instability in a Simple Nonlinear One-Layer Model

Polvani, Lorenzo M.; Esler, J. Gavin; Plumb, R. Alan

Using a global, one-layer shallow water model, the response of a westerly flow to a localized mountain is investigated. A steady, linear response at small mountain heights successively gives way first to a steady flow in which nonlinearities are important and then to unsteady, but periodic, flow at larger mountain heights. At first the unsteady behavior consists of a low-frequency oscillation of the entire Northern Hemisphere zonal flow. As the mountain height is increased further, however, the oscillatory behavior becomes localized in the diffluent jet exit region downstream of the mountain. The oscillation then takes the form of a relatively rapid vortex shedding event, followed by a gradual readjustment of the split jet structure in the diffluent region. Although relatively simple, the model exhibits a surprisingly high sensitivity to slight parameter changes. A linear stability analysis of the time-averaged flow is able to capture the transition from steady to time-dependent behavior, but fails to capture the transition between the two distinct regimes of time-dependent response. Moreover, the most unstable modes of the time-averaged flow are found to be stationary and fail to capture the salient features of the EOFs of the full time-dependent flow. These results therefore suggest that, even in the simplest cases, such as the one studied here, a linear analysis of the time-averaged flow can be highly inadequate in describing the full nonlinear behavior.


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Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences

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