Three-dimensional instabilities in tornado-like vortices with secondary circulations

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25 Scopus citations


Tornadoes and other intense atmospheric vortices are known to occasionally transition to a flow structure with multiple vortices within their larger circulations. This phenomenon has long been ascribed to fluid dynamical instability of the inner-core circulation, and many previous studies have diagnosed low-wavenumber unstable modes in tornado-like vortices that resemble the observed structures. However, relatively few of these studies have incorporated the strong vertical motions of the inner-core circulation into the stability analysis, and no stability analyses have been performed using a complete, frictionally driven secondary circulation with strong radial inflow near the surface. Stability analyses are presented using the complete circulations generated from idealized simulations of tornado-like vortices. Fast-growing unstable modes are found that are consistent with the asymmetric structures present in these simulations. Attempts to correlate the structures and locations of these modes with instability conditions for vortices with axial jets derived by Howard & Gupta and by Leibovich & Stewartson produce only mixed results. Analyses of perturbation energy growth show that interactions between eddy fluxes and the radial shear of the azimuthal wind contribute very little to the growth of the dominant modes. Rather, the radial shear of the vertical wind and the vertical shear of the vertical wind (corresponding to deformation in the axial direction) are the primary energy sources for perturbation growth. Relatively weak axisymmetric instabilities are also identified that have some similarity to symmetric oscillations that have been observed in tornadoes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)61-100
Number of pages40
JournalJournal of Fluid Mechanics
StatePublished - Nov 2012


  • vortex breakdown
  • vortex dynamics
  • vortex instability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Mechanical Engineering


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