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An Analysis of the Conditional Instability of the Tropical Atmosphere

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  • 1 Center for Meteorology and Physical Oceanography, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
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Abstract

The ice phase is included in thermodynamic calculations of convective available potential energy (CAPE) for a large number of soundings in the tropical atmosphere, at both land and ocean stations. It is found that the positive-buoyancy contribution to CAPE resulting from the latent heat of fusion more than offsets the negative-buoyancy contribution due to water loading in the reversible thermodynamic process. The departure from moist neutrality in much of the tropical atmosphere exhibits a threshold in boundary-layer wet-bulb potential temperature of 22°–23°C. The corresponding sea surface temperature is approximately 26°C, close to the empirical threshold for hurricane formation, which suggests that conditional instability plays an important role in the latter phenomenon. The simultaneous presence of finite CAPE and infrequent deep convection in the tropics is tentatively attributed to the convective inhibition energy (CINE) and to the mixing process that destroys positive buoyancy in incipient cloud parcels.

Abstract

The ice phase is included in thermodynamic calculations of convective available potential energy (CAPE) for a large number of soundings in the tropical atmosphere, at both land and ocean stations. It is found that the positive-buoyancy contribution to CAPE resulting from the latent heat of fusion more than offsets the negative-buoyancy contribution due to water loading in the reversible thermodynamic process. The departure from moist neutrality in much of the tropical atmosphere exhibits a threshold in boundary-layer wet-bulb potential temperature of 22°–23°C. The corresponding sea surface temperature is approximately 26°C, close to the empirical threshold for hurricane formation, which suggests that conditional instability plays an important role in the latter phenomenon. The simultaneous presence of finite CAPE and infrequent deep convection in the tropics is tentatively attributed to the convective inhibition energy (CINE) and to the mixing process that destroys positive buoyancy in incipient cloud parcels.

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