The global atmospheric circulation in moist isentropic coordinates

Olivier Pauluis, Arnaud Czaja, Robert Korty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Differential heating of the earth's atmosphere drives a global circulation that transports energy from the tropical regions to higher latitudes. Because of the turbulent nature of the flow, any description of a "mean circulation" or "mean parcel trajectories" is tied to the specific averaging method and coordinate system. In this paper, the NCEP-NCAR reanalysis data spanning 1970-2004 are used to compare the mean circulation obtained by averaging the flow on surfaces of constant liquid water potential temperature, or dry isentropes, and on surfaces of constant equivalent potential temperature, or moist isentropes. While the two circulations are qualitatively similar, they differ in intensity. In the tropics, the total mass transport on dry isentropes is larger than the circulation on moist isentropes. In contrast, in midlatitudes, the total mass transport on moist isentropes is between 1.5 and 3 times larger than the mass transport on dry isentropes. It is shown here that the differences between the two circulations can be explained by the atmospheric transport of water vapor. In particular, the enhanced mass transport on moist isentropes corresponds to a poleward flow of warm moist air near the earth's surface in midlatitudes. This low-level poleward flow does not appear in the zonally averaged circulation on dry isentropes, as it is hidden by the presence of a larger equatorward flow of drier air at same potential temperature. However, as the equivalent potential temperature in this low-level poleward flow is close to the potential temperature of the air near the tropopause, it is included in the total circulation on moist isentropes. In the tropics, the situation is reversed: the Hadley circulation transports warm moist air toward the equator, and in the opposite direction to the flow at upper levels, and the circulation on dry isentropes is larger than that on moist isentropes. The relationship between circulation and entropy transport is also analyzed.Agross stratification is defined as the ratio of the entropy transport to the net transport on isentropic surfaces. It is found that in midlatitudes the gross stability for moist entropy is approximately the same as that for dry entropy. The gross stratification in the midlatitude circulation differs from what one would expect for either an overturning circulation or horizontal mixing; rather, it confirms that warm moist subtropical air ascends into the upper troposphere within the storm tracks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3077-3093
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number11
StatePublished - Jun 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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