Laboratory experiments on barotropic vortices in a rotating fluid revealed that the instability behaviour of cyclonic and anticyclonic vortices is remarkably different. Depending on its initial vorticity distribution, the cyclonic vortex has in a number of experiments been observed to be unstable to wavenumber-2 perturbations, leading to the gradual formation of a stable tripolar vortex structure. This tripole consists of an elongated cyclonic core vortex adjoined by two anticyclonic satellite vortices.
In contrast, the anticyclonic vortex shows a rather explosive instability behaviour, in the sense that it is observed to immediately split up into two dipoles. Under somewhat different circumstances the higher-order mode-3 instability is observed, in which the anticyclonic core has a triangular shape, with three smaller cyclonic satellite vortices at its sides.
A modified version of Rayleigh's instability criterion offers a qualitative explanation for this apparent difference between unstable cyclonic and anticyclonic vortices.