Scaling for Saturated Moist Quasigeostrophic Turbulence

Marguerite L. Brown, Olivier Pauluis, Edwin Gerber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Much of our conceptual understanding of midlatitude atmospheric motion comes from two-layer quasigeostrophic (QG) models. Traditionally, these QG models do not include moisture, which accounts for an estimated 30%–60% of the available energy of the atmosphere. The atmospheric moisture content is expected to increase under global warming, and therefore, a theory for how moisture modifies atmospheric dynamics is crucial. We use a two-layer moist QG model with convective adjustment as a basis for analyzing how latent heat release and large-scale moisture gradients impact the scalings of a midlatitude system at the synoptic scale. In this model, the degree of saturation can be tuned independently of other moist parameters by enforcing a high rate of evaporation from the surface. This allows for study of the effects of latent heat release at saturation, without the intrinsic nonlinearity of precipitation. At saturation, this system is equivalent to the dry QG model under a rescaling of both length and time. This predicts that the most unstable mode shifts to smaller scales, the growth rates increase, and the inverse cascade extends to larger scales. We verify these results numerically and use them to verify a framework for the complete energetics of a moist system. We examine the spectral features of the energy transfer terms. This analysis shows that precipitation generates energy at small scales, while dry dynamics drive a significant broadening to larger scales. Cascades of energy are still observed in all terms, albeit without a clearly defined inertial range. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: The effect of moist processes, especially the impact of latent heating associated with condensation, on the size and strength of midlatitude storms is not well understood. Such insight is particularly needed in the context of global warming, as we expect moisture to play a more important role in a warmer world. In this study, we provide intuition into how including condensation can result in midlatitude storms that grow faster and have features on both larger and smaller scales than their dry counterparts. We provide a framework for quantifying these changes and verify it for the special case where it is raining everywhere. These findings can be extended to the more realistic situation where it is only raining locally.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1481-1498
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of the Atmospheric Sciences
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2023


  • Atmosphere
  • Moisture/moisture budget
  • Precipitation
  • Turbulence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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