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A Simple Kinematic Source of Skewness in Atmospheric Flow Fields

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  • 1 Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Reading, United Kingdom
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Abstract

Geopotential height fields exhibit a well-known pattern of skewness, with distributions that are positively skewed on the poleward side of the midlatitude jets/storm tracks and negatively skewed on the equatorward side. This pattern has often been interpreted as a signature of nonlinear dynamical features, such as blocking highs and cutoff lows, and there is renewed interest in the higher moments of flow variables as indicators of the nature of the underlying dynamics. However, this paper suggests that skewness can arise as a simple kinematic consequence of the presence of jet streams and so may not be a reliable indicator of nonlinear dynamical behavior. In support of this, reanalysis data are analyzed to demonstrate a close link between the jet streams and the skewness patterns. Further evidence is provided by a simple stochastic kinematic model of a jet stream as a Gaussian wind profile. The parameters of this model are fitted to data from the reanalysis and also from an aquaplanet general circulation model. The skewness of the model’s geopotential height and zonal wind fields are then compared to those of the original data. This shows that a fluctuating jet stream can produce patterns of skewness that are qualitatively similar to those observed, although the magnitude of the skewness is significantly overestimated by the kinematic model. These results suggest that this simple kinematic effect does contribute to the observed patterns of skewness but that other processes (such as nonlinear dynamics) likely also play a role.

Corresponding author address: Tim Woollings, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Earley Gate, P.O. Box 243, Reading RG6 6BB, United Kingdom. E-mail: t.j.woollings@rdg.ac.uk

Abstract

Geopotential height fields exhibit a well-known pattern of skewness, with distributions that are positively skewed on the poleward side of the midlatitude jets/storm tracks and negatively skewed on the equatorward side. This pattern has often been interpreted as a signature of nonlinear dynamical features, such as blocking highs and cutoff lows, and there is renewed interest in the higher moments of flow variables as indicators of the nature of the underlying dynamics. However, this paper suggests that skewness can arise as a simple kinematic consequence of the presence of jet streams and so may not be a reliable indicator of nonlinear dynamical behavior. In support of this, reanalysis data are analyzed to demonstrate a close link between the jet streams and the skewness patterns. Further evidence is provided by a simple stochastic kinematic model of a jet stream as a Gaussian wind profile. The parameters of this model are fitted to data from the reanalysis and also from an aquaplanet general circulation model. The skewness of the model’s geopotential height and zonal wind fields are then compared to those of the original data. This shows that a fluctuating jet stream can produce patterns of skewness that are qualitatively similar to those observed, although the magnitude of the skewness is significantly overestimated by the kinematic model. These results suggest that this simple kinematic effect does contribute to the observed patterns of skewness but that other processes (such as nonlinear dynamics) likely also play a role.

Corresponding author address: Tim Woollings, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Earley Gate, P.O. Box 243, Reading RG6 6BB, United Kingdom. E-mail: t.j.woollings@rdg.ac.uk
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