The linear stability of a simple two-layer shear flow with an upper-layer potential vorticity front overlying a quiescent lower layer is investigated as a function of Rossby number and layer depths. This flow configuration is a generalization of previously studied flows whose results we reinterpret by considering the possible resonant interaction between waves. We find that instabilities previously referred to as ‘ageostrophic’ are a direct extension of quasi-geostrophic instabilities.
Two types of instability are discussed: the classic long-wave quasi-geostrophic baroclinic instability arising from an interaction of two vortical waves, and an ageostrophic short-wave baroclinic instability arising from the interaction of a gravity wave and a vortical wave (vortical waves are defined as those that exist due to the presence of a gradient in potential vorticity, e.g. Rossby waves). Both instabilities are observed in oceanic fronts. The long-wave instability has length scale and growth rate similar to those found in the quasi-geostrophic limit, even when the Rossby number of the flow is O(1).
We also demonstrate that in layered shallow-water models, as in continuously stratified quasi-geostrophic models, when a layer intersects the top or bottom boundaries, that layer can sustain vortical waves even though there is no apparent potential vorticity gradient. The potential vorticity gradient needed is provided at the top (or bottom) intersection point, which we interpret as a point that connects a finite layer with a layer of infinitesimal thickness, analogous to a temperature gradient on the boundary in a continuously stratified quasi-geostrophic model.