The dynamics of a baroclinic vortex in a two-layer rotating stratified fluid is investigated. The vortex is produced by the classical geostrophic adjustment process, starting from an initial step in the layer interface. The experiments are performed on the 13m diameter Coriolis turntable, allowing investigation of inertial regimes, in which viscous friction effects are negligible. The velocity fields are measured in both layers by employing particle image velocimetry, thus providing a quantitative measure of the flow evolution.
The baroclinic instability occurs much later in time than the initial inertial oscillations. The growth occurs in a hydrostatic regime, with velocity being independent of height in each layer. This process is described well by linear stability theory for a quasi-geostrophic disk vortex, or by the classical model of Phillips (1954) empirically adapted to the circular geometry. This stability prediction from the quasi-geostrophic model remains relevant even for a large initial interfacial step. For strong cyclones, the instability grows roughly twice as fast as these predictions.
In the nonlinear stage of the instability, the initial vortex splits and reorganizes into vortex pairs propagating outward. These dipoles involve the interactions of positive and negative vortices, with components in the upper and in the lower layer. In the case of a large initial interface step, a clear asymmetry between anticyclones and cyclones is observed: the latter are more intense and compact, with a more barotropic structure.
Our results are compared with numerical simulations, using a two-layer isopycnal model. Data assimilation is used to initiate the model with the same perturbations as in the laboratory experiments, thus providing a quantitative test of the dynamics. Furthermore, data assimilation is used to extrapolate the measurements, yielding the interface position and potential vorticity fields.