On non-dissipative wave-mean interactions in the atmosphere or oceans

Oliver Bühler, Michael E. McIntyre

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Idealized model examples of non-dissipative wave-mean interactions, using small-amplitude and slow-modulation approximations, are studied in order to re-examine the usual assumption that the only important interactions are dissipative. The results clarify and extend the body of wave-mean interaction theory on which our present understanding of, for instance, the global-scale atmospheric circulation depends (e.g. Holton et al. 1995). The waves considered are either gravity or inertia-gravity waves. The mean flows need not be zonally symmetric, but are approximately 'balanced' in a sense that non-trivially generalizes the standard concepts of geostrophic or higher-order balance at low Froude and/or Rossby number. Among the examples studied are cases in which irreversible mean-flow changes, capable of persisting after the gravity waves have propagated out of the domain of interest, take place without any need for wave dissipation. The irreversible mean-flow changes can be substantial in certain circumstances, such as Rossby-wave resonance, in which potential-vorticity contours are advected cumulatively. The examples studied in detail use shallow-water systems, but also provide a basis for generalizations to more realistic, stratified flow models. Independent checks on the analytical shallow-water results are obtained by using a different method based on particle-following averages in the sense of 'generalized Lagrangian-mean theory', and by verifying the theoretical predictions with nonlinear numerical simulations. The Lagrangian-mean method is seen to generalize easily to the three-dimensional stratified Boussinesq model, and to allow a partial generalization of the results to finite amplitude. This includes a finite-amplitude mean potential-vorticity theorem with a larger range of validity than had been hitherto recognized.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)301-343
Number of pages43
JournalJournal of Fluid Mechanics
StatePublished - Jan 10 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Mechanical Engineering


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