The spin-down of a barotropic axisymmetric vortex, such as observed in laboratory models, is examined analytically. In addition to the classical, self-similar Ekman decay due to viscous effects (Greenspan & Howard 1963), which is characterized by an azimuthal velocity profile with the position of its maximum velocity fixed and a decay time equal to the Ekman timescale. the effects of nonlinearity and a free surface are considered separately.
The Ekman circulation in the radial and vertical planes whose strength is determined by the vorticity of the overlying fluid, leads to radial advection of the azimuthal velocity. This nonlinearity results in a nonlinear kinematic wave equation for the circulation and leads to the outward/inward propagation of the position of maximum azimuthal velocity for cyclonic/anticyclonic vortices. The associated steepening of the azimuthal velocity profile may lead to a shock formation when the absolute vorticity of the initial profile is negative at a certain radius. For anticyclonic vortices having a monotonically increasing angular velocity profile this shock formation occurs at the core. For such vortices (or arbitrary cyclonic vortices) this dynamical ‘breaking’ criterion is, despite significant differences in the physics concerned, identical to Rayleigh's kinematical criterion for the onset of centrifugal instability.
For a dynamically active free-surface fluid the spin-down of a decaying vortex is prolonged by a radially dependent factor proportional to the Froude number. This conclusion holds both in a cylinder with a parabolic bottom (mimicking the shape of the free surface of a fluid in solid-body rotation) and in a flat-bottomed cylinder. In view of the constancy of background vorticity the former geometry is relevant for a comparison to geophysical f-plane vortices. The latter geometry, however, is more easily established in a laboratory experiment, but the evolution of the azimuthal velocity profile is much more complicated and depends on the initial azimuthal velocity profile in a highly convoluted way.