Articles | Volume 10, issue 7
01 Apr 2010
 | 01 Apr 2010

A new paradigm for intensity modification of tropical cyclones: thermodynamic impact of vertical wind shear on the inflow layer

M. Riemer, M. T. Montgomery, and M. E. Nicholls

Abstract. An important roadblock to improved intensity forecasts for tropical cyclones (TCs) is our incomplete understanding of the interaction of a TC with the environmental flow. In this paper we re-visit the canonical problem of a TC in vertical wind shear on an f-plane. A suite of numerical experiments is performed with intense TCs in moderate to strong vertical shear. We employ a set of simplified model physics – a simple bulk aerodynamic boundary layer scheme and "warm rain" microphysics – to foster better understanding of the dynamics and thermodynamics that govern the modification of TC intensity. In all experiments the TC is resilient to shear but significant differences in the intensity evolution occur.

The ventilation of the TC core with dry environmental air at mid-levels and the dilution of the upper-level warm core are two prevailing hypotheses for the adverse effect of vertical shear on storm intensity. Here we propose an alternative and arguably more effective mechanism how cooler and drier (lower θe) air – "anti-fuel" for the TC power machine – can enter the core region of the TC. Strong and persistent, shear-induced downdrafts flux low θe air into the boundary layer from above, significantly depressing the θe values in the storm's inflow layer. Air with lower θe values enters the eyewall updrafts, considerably reducing eyewall θe values in the azimuthal mean. When viewed from the perspective of an idealised Carnot-cycle heat engine a decrease of storm intensity can thus be expected. Although the Carnot cycle model is – if at all – only valid for stationary and axisymmetric TCs, a close association of the downward transport of low θe into the boundary layer and the intensity evolution offers further evidence in support of our hypothesis.

The downdrafts that flush the boundary layer with low θe air are tied to a quasi-stationary, azimuthal wave number 1 convective asymmetry outside of the eyewall. This convective asymmetry and the associated downdraft pattern extends outwards to approximately 150 km. Downdrafts occur on the vortex scale and form when precipitation falls out from sloping updrafts and evaporates in the unsaturated air below. It is argued that, to zero order, the formation of the convective asymmetry is forced by frictional convergence associated with the azimuthal wave number 1 vortex Rossby wave structure of the outer-vortex tilt. This work points to an important connection between the thermodynamic impact in the near-core boundary layer and the asymmetric balanced dynamics governing the TC vortex evolution.

Final-revised paper