Turbulent diffusion in the geostrophic inverse cascade

K. S. Smith, G. Boccaletti, C. C. Henning, I. Marinov, C. Y. Tam, I. M. Held, G. K. Vallis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Motivated in part by the problem of large-scale lateral turbulent heat transport in the Earth's atmosphere and oceans, and in part by the problem of turbulent transport itself, we seek to better understand the transport of a passive tracer advected by various types of fully developed two-dimensional turbulence. The types of turbulence considered correspond to various relationships between the streamfunction and the advected field. Each type of turbulence considered possesses two quadratic invariants and each can develop an inverse cascade. These cascades can be modified or halted, for example, by friction, a background vorticity gradient or a mean temperature gradient. We focus on three physically realizable cases: classical two-dimensional turbulence, surface quasi-geostrophic turbulence, and shallow-water quasi-geostrophic turbulence at scales large compared to the radius of deformation. In each model we assume that tracer variance is maintained by a large-scale mean tracer gradient while turbulent energy is produced at small scales via random forcing, and dissipated by linear drag. We predict the spectral shapes, eddy scales and equilibrated energies resulting from the inverse cascades, and use the expected velocity and length scales to predict integrated tracer fluxes. When linear drag halts the cascade, the resulting diffusivities are decreasing functions of the drag coefficient, but with different dependences for each case. When β is significant, we find a clear distinction between the tracer mixing scale, which depends on β but is nearly independent of drag, and the energy-containing (or jet) scale, set by a combination of the drag coefficient and β. Our predictions are tested via high-resolution spectral simulations. We find in all cases that the passive scalar is diffused down-gradient with a diffusion coefficient that is well-predicted from estimates of mixing length and velocity scale obtained from turbulence phenomenology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13-48
Number of pages36
JournalJournal of Fluid Mechanics
StatePublished - Oct 25 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Applied Mathematics


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