Barotropic instability of a zonal jet on the sphere: from non-divergence through quasi-geostrophy to shallow water

Nathan Paldor*, Ofer Shamir, Chaim I. Garfinkel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Two common approximations to the full Shallow Water Equations (SWEs) are non-divergence and quasi-geostrophy, and the degree to which these approximations lead to biases in numerical solutions are explored using the test bed of barotropic instability. Specifically, we examine the linear stability of strong polar and equatorial jets and compare the growth rates obtained from the SWEs along with those obtained from the Non-Divergent barotropic vorticity (ND) equation and the Quasi-Geostrophic (QG) equation. The main result of this paper is that the depth over which a layer is barotropically unstable is a crucial parameter in controlling the growth rate of small amplitude perturbations and this dependence is completely lost in the ND equation and is overly weak in the QG system. Only for depths of 30 km or more are the growth rates predicted by the ND and QG systems a good approximation to those of the SWEs, and such a convergence for deep layers can be explained using theoretical considerations. However, for smaller depths, the growth rates predicted by the SWEs become smaller than those of the ND and QG systems and for depths of between 5 and 10 km they can be smaller by more than (Formula presented.). For polar jets, and for depths below 2 km the mean height in geostrophic balance with the strong zonal jet becomes negative and hence the barotropic instability problem is ill-defined. While in the SWEs an equatorial jet becomes stable for layer depths smaller than 3–4 km, in the QG and ND approximations it is unstable for layer depths down to 1 km. These result may have implications for the importance of barotropic instability in Earth's upper stratosphere and perhaps also other planets such as Venus.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)15-34
Number of pages20
JournalGeophysical and Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Barotropic instability
  • shear instability
  • spherical shallow water equations


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