Chaos, 12, 451-459.

Water vapor as an active scalar in tropical atmospheric dynamics

Adam H. Sobel
Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, New York, NY.


Water vapor is a constituent of the tropical atmosphere which, though to a significant extent locally controlled by vertical advection, precipitation, and surface evaporation, is also affected by horizontal advection. Water vapor affects the flow in turn, because a humid atmosphere supports deep, precipitating convection more readily than a dry atmosphere. Precipitation heats the atmosphere, and this heating drives the flow. Water vapor is thus a dynamically active constituent. Simplifications to the primitive equations of dynamical meteorology, based on the so-called weak temperature gradient approximation, are presented which highlight this behavior. The weak temperature gradient approximation is valid on large scales near the equator. It eliminates gravity waves, leaving only balanced dynamics, though the fundamental balance occurs in the temperature rather than the momentum equation (as is customary in most balance models of geophysical fluid dynamics). The dynamical role of water vapor is examined in a couple of idealized contexts, where either the vertical or horizontal structure of the flow is severely simplified.