Virtual and real topography for flows across mountain ranges

Armi, L, Mayr GJ.  2015.  Virtual and real topography for flows across mountain ranges. Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. 54:723-731.

Date Published:



layers, lee, shallow, sierras, stratified flow, turbulence, waves


A combination of real and virtual topography is shown to be crucial to describe the essentials of stratified flow over mountain ranges and leeside valleys. On 14 March 2006 [Intensive Observation Period 4 of the Terrain-Induced Rotor Experiment (T-REX)], a nearly neutral cloud-filled layer, capped by a strong density step, overflowed the Sierra Nevada and separated from the lee slope upon encountering a cooler valley air mass. The flow in this lowest layer was asymmetric across and hydraulically controlled at the crest with subcritical flow upstream and supercritical flow downstream. The density step at the top of this flowing layer formed a virtual topography, which descended 1.9 km and determined the horizontal scale and shape of the flow response aloft reaching into the stratosphere. A comparison shows that the 11 January 1972 Boulder, Colorado, windstorm case was similar: hydraulically controlled at the crest with the same strength and descent of the virtual topography. In the 18 February 1970 Boulder case, however, the layer beneath the stronger virtual topography was subcritical everywhere with a symmetric dip across the Continental Divide of only 0.5 km. In all three cases, the response and strength of the flow aloft depend on the virtual topography. The layer up to the next strong density step at or near the tropopause was hydraulically supercritical for the 18 February case, subcritical for the T-REX case, and critically controlled for the 11 January case, for which a weak density step and isolating layer aloft made possible the strong response aloft for which it is famous.