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date: 31 October 2020

Energetics of the Climate Systemlocked

  • Jin-Song von StorchJin-Song von StorchMax-Planck Institute for Meteorology


The energetics considerations based on Lorenz’s available potential energy A focus on identification and quantification of processes capable of converting external energy sources into the kinetic energy of atmospheric and oceanic general circulations. Generally, these considerations consist of: (a) identifying the relevant energy compartments from which energy can be converted against friction to kinetic energy of motions of interests; (b) formulating for these energy compartments budget equations that describe all possible energy pathways; and (c) identifying the dominant energy pathways using realistic data. In order to obtain a more detailed description of energy pathways, a partitioning of motions, for example, into a “mean” and an “eddy” component, or into a diabatic and an adiabatic component, is used. Since the budget equations do not always suggest the relative importance of all possible pathways, often not even the directions, data that describe the atmospheric and the oceanic state in a sufficiently accurate manner are needed for evaluating the energy pathways. Apart from the complication due to different expressions of A, ranging from the original definition by Lorenz in 1955 to its approximations and to more generally defined forms, one has to balance the complexity of the respective budget equations that allows the evaluation of more possible energy pathways, with the quality of data available that allows sufficiently accurate estimates of energy pathways. With regard to the atmosphere, our knowledge, as inferred from the four-box Lorenz energy cycle, has consolidated in the last two decades, by, among other means, using data assimilation products obtained by combining observations with realistic atmospheric general circulation models (AGCMs). The eddy kinetic energy, amounting to slightly less than 50% of the total kinetic energy, is supported against friction through a baroclinic pathway “fueled” by the latitudinally dependent diabatic heating. The mean kinetic energy is supported against friction by converting eddy kinetic energy via inverse cascades. For the ocean, our knowledge is still emerging. The description through the four-box Lorenz energy cycle is approximative and was only estimated from a simulation of a 0.1° oceanic general circulation models (OGCM) realistically forced at the sea surface, rather than from a data assimilation product. The estimates obtained so far suggest that the oceanic eddy kinetic energy, amounting almost 75% of the total oceanic kinetic energy, is supported against friction through a baroclinic pathway similar to that in the atmosphere. However, the oceanic baroclinic pathway is “fueled” to a considerable extent by converting mean kinetic energy supported by winds into mean available potential energy. Winds are also the direct source of the kinetic energy of the mean circulation, without involving noticeable inverse cascades from transients, at least not for the ocean as a whole. The energetics of oceanic general circulation can also be examined by separating diabatic from adiabatic processes. Such a consideration is thought to be more appropriate for understanding the energetics of the oceanic meridional overturning circulation (MOC), since this circulation is sensitive to density changes induced by diabatic mixing. Further work is needed to quantify the respective energy pathways using realistic data.


  • Meteorology and Climatology

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