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John M. Lyman, Gregory C. Johnson, and William S. Kessler


Tropical instability waves (TIWs) within a half-degree of the equator in the Pacific Ocean have been consistently observed in meridional velocity with periods of around 20 days. On the other hand, near 5°N, TIWs have been observed in sea surface height (SSH), thermocline depth, and velocity to have periods near 30 days. Tropical Atmosphere–Ocean (TAO) Project moored equatorial velocity and temperature time series are used to investigate the spatial and temporal structure of TIWs during 3 years of La Niña conditions from 1998 through 2001. Along 140°W, where the TIW temperature and velocity variabilities are at their maxima, these variabilities include two distinct TIWs with periods of 17 and 33 days, rather than one broadbanded process. As predicted by modeling studies, the 17-day TIW variability is shown to occur not only in meridional velocity at the equator, but also in subsurface temperature at 2°N and 2°S, while the 33-day TIW variability is observed primarily in subsurface temperature at 5°N. These two TIWs, respectively, are shown to have characteristics similar to a Yanai wave/surface-trapped instability and an unstable first meridional mode Rossby wave. One implication of such a description is that the velocity variability on the equator is not directly associated with the dominant 33-day variability along 5°N.

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John M. Lyman, Dudley B. Chelton, Roland A. deSzoeke, and Roger M. Samelson


To understand the characteristics of sea surface height signatures of tropical instability waves (TIWs), a linearized model of the central Pacific Ocean was developed in which the vertical structures of the state variables are projected onto a set of orthogonal baroclinic eigenvectors. In lieu of in situ current measurements with adequate spatial and temporal resolution, the mean current structure used in the model was obtained from the Parallel Ocean Climate Model (POCM). The TIWs in the linear model have cross-equatorial structure and wavenumber–frequency content similar to the TIWs in POCM, even when the vertical structures of the state variables are projected onto only the first two orthogonal baroclinic eigenvectors. Because this model is able to reproduce TIWs with relatively simple vertical structure, it is possible to examine the mechanism for the formation of TIWs. TIWs are shown to form from a resonance between two equatorial Rossby waves as the strength of the background currents is slowly increased.

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