Reexamining the vertical structure of tangential winds in tropical cyclones: Observations and theory

Daniel P. Stern, David S. Nolan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

72 Scopus citations


A few commonly held beliefs regarding the vertical structure of tropical cyclones drawn from prior studies, both observational and theoretical, are examined in this study. One of these beliefs is that the outward slope of the radius of maximum winds (RMW) is a function of the size of the RMW. Another belief is that the outward slope of the RMW is also a function of the intensity of the storm. Specifically, Shea and Gray found that the RMW becomes increasingly vertical with increasing intensity and decreasing radius. The third belief evaluated here is that the RMW is a surface of constant absolute angular momentum M. These three conventional wisdoms of vertical structure are revisited with a dataset of three-dimensional Doppler wind analyses, comprising seven hurricanes on 17 different days. Azimuthal mean tangential winds are calculated for each storm, and the slopes of the RMW and M surfaces are objectively determined. The outward slope of the RMW is shown to increase with radius, which supports prior studies. In contrast to prior results, no relationship is found between the slope of the RMW and intensity. It is shown that the RMW is indeed closely approximated by an M surface for the majority of storms. However, there is a small but systematic tendency for M to decrease upward along the RMW. Utilizing Emanuel's analytical hurricane model, a new equation is derived for the slope of the RMW in radius-pressure space. This predicts a linear increase of slope with radius and essentially no dependence of slope on intensity. An exactly analogous equation can be derived in log-pressure height coordinates, and a numerical solution yields the same conclusions in geometric height coordinates. These conclusions are further supported by the results of simulations utilizing Emanuel's simple, time-dependent, axisymmetric hurricane model. As both the model and the analytical theory are governed by the dual constraints of thermal wind balance and slantwise moist neutrality, it is demonstrated that it is these two assumptions that require the slope of the RMW to be a function of its size but not of the intensity of the storm. Finally, it is shown that within the context of Emanuel's theory, the RMW must very closely approximate an M surface through most of the depth of the vortex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3579-3600
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of the Atmospheric Sciences
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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