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Poleward heat transport by the atmospheric heat engine


The atmospheric heat transport on Earth from the Equator to the poles is largely carried out by the mid-latitude storms. However, there is no satisfactory theory to describe this fundamental feature of the Earth's climate1,2. Previous studies have characterized the poleward heat transport as a diffusion by eddies of specified horizontal length and velocity scales, but there is little agreement as to what those scales should be3,4,5,6,7. Here we propose instead to regard the baroclinic zone—the zone of strong temperature gradients and active eddies—as a heat engine which generates eddy kinetic energy by transporting heat from a warmer to a colder region. This view leads to a new velocity scale, which we have tested along with previously proposed length and velocity scales, using numerical climate simulations in which the eddy properties have been varied by changing forcing and boundary conditions. The experiments show that the eddy velocity varies in accordance with the new scale, while the size of the eddies varies with the well-known Rhines β-scale. Our results not only give new insight into atmospheric eddy heat transport, but also allow simple estimates of the intensities of mid-latitude storms, which have hitherto only been possible with expensive general circulation models.

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Figure 1: Predicted length scales versus diagnosed eddy length scale Ldisp = \(\overline{v′T′}\)/(k\(\overline{T̄}\)y|v′|).
Figure 2: Predicted velocity scales versus diagnosed eddy velocity scale |v′|.
Figure 3: Parametrized heat flux versus heat flux diagnosed directly from the GCM.


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Correspondence to George C. Craig.

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Barry, L., Craig, G. & Thuburn, J. Poleward heat transport by the atmospheric heat engine. Nature 415, 774–777 (2002).

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