A Conundrum of Tropical Cyclone Formation

Monday, 15 December 2014: 8:45 AM
Christopher A Davis, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, United States
This paper will address a conundrum that has emerged from recent research on tropical cyclone formation. Composite analyses and case studies suggest that prior to genesis, the atmosphere presents a mid-tropospheric vortex that is strong compared to the cyclonic circulation in the boundary layer. Accompanying this vortex is near saturation from the boundary layer through at least 5 km, sometimes more, and a nearly balanced weak negative temperature anomaly below the vortex and stronger positive temperature anomaly above. This thermodynamic state is one of high moisture but low buoyancy for lifted parcels (i.e. low convective available potential energy). However, observations also suggest that widespread deep convection accompanies genesis, with cloud top temperatures becoming colder near the time of genesis. This is seemingly at odds with in situ observations of thermodynamic characteristics prior to genesis.

Progress toward understanding the apparent contradiction can be made by realizing that the existence of a moist, relatively stable vortex, and deep convective clouds are not necessarily coincident in space and time. This is demonstrated by a detailed analysis of the two days leading up to the formation of Atlantic tropical cyclone Karl on 14 September. Karl featured a relatively long gestation period characterized initially by a marked misalignment of mid-tropospheric and surface cyclonic circulations. The mid-tropospheric vortex strengthened due to a pulse of convection earlier on 13 September. Meanwhile, the near-surface vortex underwent a precession around the mid-tropospheric vortex as the separation between the two decreased. The eruption of convection around midnight on 14 September, 18 hours prior to declaration on a TC, occurred in the center of the nearly-aligned vortex, contained a mixture of shallow and deep convection and resulted in spin-up over a deep layer, but particularly at the surface. Prior to genesis, the most intense deep convection was located at least 200 km from the center.