Potential vorticity

Potential vorticity (PV) is a quantity which is proportional to the dot product of vorticity and stratification that, following a parcel of air or water, can only be changed by diabatic or frictional processes. It is a useful concept for understanding the generation of vorticity in cyclogenesis (the birth and development of a cyclone), especially along the polar front, and in analyzing flow in the ocean.

It is also useful in tracing intrusions of stratospheric air deep into the troposphere in the vicinity of jet streaks, a concentrated region within a jet stream where the wind speeds are the strongest. It acts as a flow tracer in the ocean as well. It can also be used to explain how a range of mountains like the Andes can make the upper westerly winds swerve towards the equator and back.

Baroclinic instability requires the presence of a potential vorticity gradient along which waves amplify during cyclogenesis.

PV conservation

Mathematically, one form of potential vorticity is given by the equation:

{ m PV} = frac{1}{ ho},zeta,. abla heta
where ho is the fluid density, zeta is the absolute vorticity and abla heta is the gradient of the potential temperature. It can be shown through a combination of the first law of thermodynamics and momentum conservation that potential vorticity can only be changed by diabatic heating (such as latent heat released from condensation) or frictional processes. This conservation is the atmospheric equivalent to inertia. A spinning ice skater with her arms spread out laterally can accelerate her rate of spin by contracting her arms. Similarly, when a vortex of air is broad, it is in turn, slow. When the air converges, to maintain potential vorticity, the air speed increases, resulting in a stretched rince vortex. Divergence causes the vortex to spread, slowing down the rate of spin.

ee also

* Vorticity


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