The counter-propagating Rossby-wave perspective on baroclinic instability. II: Application to the Charney model

E. Heifetz, J. Methven*, B. J. Hoskins, C. H. Bishop

*Corresponding author for this work

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31 Scopus citations


The constant-density Charney model describes the simplest unstable basic state with a planetary-vorticity gradient, which is uniform and positive, and baroclinicity that is manifest as a negative contribution to the potential-vorticity (PV) gradient at the ground and positive vertical wind shear. Together, these ingredients satisfy the necessary conditions for baroclinic instability. In Part I it was shown how baroclinic growth on a general zonal basic state can be viewed as the interaction of pairs of 'counter-propagating Rossby waves' (CRWs) that can be constructed from a growing normal mode and its decaying complex conjugate. In this paper the normal-mode solutions for the Charney model are studied from the CRW perspective. Clear parallels can be drawn between the most unstable modes of the Charney model and the Eady model, in which the CRWs can be derived independently of the normal modes. However, the dispersion curves for the two models are very different; the Eady model has a short-wave cut-off, while the Charney model is unstable at short wavelengths. Beyond its maximum growth rate the Charney model has a neutral point at finite wavelength (r = 1). Thereafter follows a succession of unstable branches, each with weaker growth than the last, separated by neutral points at integer r-the so-called 'Green branches'. A separate branch of westward-propagating neutral modes also originates front each neutral point. By approximating the lower CRW as a Rossby edge wave and the upper CRW structure as a single PV peak with a spread proportional to the Rossby scale height, the main features of the 'Charney branch' (O < r < 1) can be deduced without prior calculation of the normal modes. Furthermore, CRWs from this branch are seen to make a smooth transition into the boundary and interior PV structure of the neutral modes appearing at r = 1. The behaviour of the other branches and neutral points is essentially the same when viewed from the CRW perspective, but with cancelling interior PV structures reducing the self and mutual interaction of the CRWs. The underlying dynamics determining the nature of all the solutions is the difference in the scale-dependence of PV inversion for boundary and interior PV anomalies, the Rossby-wave propagation mechanism and the CRW interaction. The behaviour of the Charney modes and the first neutral branch, which rely on tropospheric PV gradients, are arguably more applicable to the atmosphere than modes of the Eady model where the positive PV gradient exists only at the tropopause.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)233-258
Number of pages26
JournalQuarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society
Issue number596 PART A
StatePublished - Jan 2004


  • Dispersion relation
  • Phase-locking
  • Scale effect of PV inversion
  • Steering level


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