Shape and size of large-scale vortices: A generic fluid pattern in geophysical fluid dynamics

Louis Alexandre Couston*, Daniel Lecoanet, Benjamin Favier, Michael Le Bars

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Planetary rotation organizes fluid motions into coherent, long-lived swirls, known as large-scale vortices (LSVs), which play an important role in the dynamics and long-term evolution of geophysical and astrophysical fluids. Here, using direct numerical simulations, we show that LSVs in rapidly rotating mixed convective and stably stratified fluids, which approximates the two-layer, turbulent-stratified dynamics of many geophysical and astrophysical fluids, have a generic shape and that their size can be predicted. We show that LSVs emerge in the convection zone from upscale energy transfers and can penetrate into the stratified layer. At the convective-stratified interface, the LSV cores have a positive buoyancy anomaly. Due to the thermal wind constraint, this buoyancy anomaly leads to winds in the stratified layer that decay over a characteristic vertical length scale. Thus LSVs take the shape of a depth-invariant cylinder with a finite-size radius in the turbulent layer and of a penetrating half dome in the stratified layer. Importantly, we demonstrate that when LSVs penetrate all the way through the stratified layer and reach a boundary that is no-slip, they saturate by boundary friction. We provide a prediction for the penetration depth and maximum radius of LSVs as a function of the LSV vorticity, the stratified layer depth, and the stratification. Our results, which apply for cyclonic LSVs, suggest that LSVs in slowly rotating stars and Earth's liquid core are confined to the convective layer, while in Earth's atmosphere and oceans they can penetrate far into the stratified layer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number023143
JournalPhysical Review Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2020
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physics and Astronomy(all)


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