The coriolis effect isn’t the easiest thing to get your head around, but it is an essential element in understanding the large scale motions of the atmosphere and the oceans.

If you roll a ball along a flat frictionless surface it keeps going in the same direction. This is because objects that have no forces on them continue in the same direction at the same speed. (*The combination of direction and speed is known as velocity, which is a vector. A vector consists of a magnitude (e.g. speed) and a direction*).

Well, that statement was not strictly true – because it wasn’t specific enough.

If you get onto a merry go round and launch your same ball in one direction you observe it move away in a curved arc. But someone above the merry go round, perhaps someone who had climbed up a pole and was looking down, would observe the ball moving in a straight line.

It’s all about frames of reference.

Now we live on planet that is rotating so we have to consider the “merry go round” effect.

There are two approaches for a mathematical basis (and we will keep the maths separated):

- consider everything from an inertial frame – as if all motion was viewed from space (note 1)
- consider everything from the surface of the planet

If we considered everything from space then the problem would actually be more difficult. On the plus side thrown balls would go in a straight line (as normal). On the minus side the boundaries of the oceans, mountains and everything else important would be constantly on the move and we would need mathematical trickery beyond most people’s comprehension.

So everyone goes for option b – consider motion from the surface of the planet. This means the frame of reference is constantly on the move.

### Coriolis

The excellent *Atmosphere, Ocean and Climate Dynamics* by Marshall & Plumb (2008) comes with a number of accompanying web pages most of which have some videos.

See GFDLab V: Inertial Circles – visualizing the Coriolis force for some detail and the video link, or click on the image below for the video link:

*Figure 1 – Click for the video*

- the left hand video is the inertial frame of reference – stationary camera
- the right hand video is the rotational frame of reference – the camera is moving with the turntable

This is the best video I have found for making clear what happens in a rotating frame.

With some relatively simple maths, the equations of motion in an inertial frame get transformed into a rotating frame of reference.

Two new terms get introduced:

- the Coriolis acceleration = “stuff appears to veer off to the side as far as I can tell” effect
- centrifugal acceleration = “things get thrown outwards like on a merry-go-round that goes very fast” effect

The centrifugal acceleration is not so significant, just a slight modifier of magnitude and direction to the very strong gravitational effect. But the Coriolis effect is very significant.

Now the Coriolis effect is easy to demonstrate on a rotating table, but we live on a rotating sphere and so there are some complexities that require the use of vector maths to calculate.

Mathematically it is easy to show that the Coriolis effect is modified by a factor relating to latitude. Specifically the effect is multiplied by the sine of the latitude, which means that at the equator the Coriolis effect is zero (sin 0° = 0), and at 30° it is half the maximum (sin 30°=0.5) and at the poles it has the full effect (sin 90° = 1.0).

I found it difficult to come up with a conceptual model which helps readers see why this is so. Readers who have had to think about the effect of resolving forces and rotations into orthogonal directions might be able to provide a conceptual picture – so please add comment if you think so. (Note 2).

### Some Maths

The Coriolis effect has to be seen in the light of the other terms in the equation of motion.

The intimidating version, for those not used to the equations of motion for fluids in a Lagrangian formulation (note 3):

D**u**/Dt + 1/ρ.∇p + ∇φ + f**z** x **u** = **F _{r}** …..[1]

where bold characters are vectors, **z** is the unit vector in the upward direction, **u **= velocity vector (u,v,w), φ = gravitational potential modified by the centrifugal force, ρ = density, p = pressure and f = Coriolis parameter.

And in not-quite-plain English, the change in velocity with time (following a moving parcel of fluid) plus pressure force plus gravitional force plus the coriolis force equals the frictional force (note that the terms are effectively for unit mass).

The Coriolis parameter:

f = 2Ω sinφ …..[2]

where Ω = the rotational speed of the earth (in radians/sec) = 2 π / (24*3600) = 7.3 x 10^{-5} /s

And the **simpler version** in each local x,y,x direction with some simplifications applied (like the hydrostatic equilibrium approximation):

Du/Dt + 1/ρ . ∂p/∂x – f.v = F_{x} ….(local x-direction) …[3a]

Dv/Dt + 1/ρ . ∂p/∂y + f.u = F_{y} ….(local y-direction) …[3b]

1/ρ . ∂p/∂z + g = 0 ….(local z-direction) …[3c]

### Geostrophic Balance and the Magnitude of the Coriolis Effect

Analysis of fluid flows is often carried out via non-dimensional ratios.

The Rossby number is the ratio of acceleration terms to the Coriolis force, and in the atmosphere at mid-latitudes is typically 0.1.

Another way of saying this is that the acceleration terms in equation 3 are a lot smaller than the Coriolis term. And in the free atmosphere (away from the boundary layer with the earth’s surface) the friction terms are negligible. This simplifies equation 3:

u_{g} = – 1/fρ . ∂p/∂y ….[4a]

v_{g} = 1/fρ . ∂p/∂x ….[4b]

With u_{g}, v_{g} defining the solution – geostrophic balance – to these simplified equations. This tells us that the E-W wind speed is proportional to the pressure change in the N-S direction, and the N-S wind speed is proportional to the pressure change in the E-W direction.

*Figure 2 – Colored text added*

What might be surprising is the instead of the wind flowing from high to low pressure, it flows at right angles – along the lines of constant pressure.

So of course we have to ask whether these simplifications are justified..

Here is a sample of the 500 mbar wind and geopotential height:

*Figure 3*

We can see that the wind at 5oo mbar (about 5km high) is quite close to geostrophic balance.

By contrast, if we look at surface winds:

*Figure 4*

Here we see that the wind is flowing more **across** the pressure field from high to low pressure – this is because of the effect of friction at the surface. The friction term in equation 3 cannot be ignored when we want to calculate the motion near boundary layers.

### Conclusion

This is just an interesting part of climate science. The large scale atmospheric and oceanic motion is fascinating and also necessary for understanding the science of climate.

### Notes

**Note 1**: Even watching the planet from space is not an inertial frame of reference as the earth is rotating around the sun, and the sun is rotating around the center of the galaxy, etc, etc.. To avoid this article being a 100 page unfathomable treatise on rederiving the equations of motion, there are necessarily many simplifications, offered without caveat or explanation.

**Note 2**: The components of the Coriolis force on the surface of a sphere are calculated from **Ω** x **u** (where the “x” is the vector cross product, not “times”).

**Ω** x **u** = (0, Ωcosφ, Ωcosφ) x (u, v, w)

= (Ωcosφ.w – Ωsinφ.v, Ωsinφ.u, -Ωcosφ.u)

w is the vertical component of wind and is generally very small compared with horizontal components. So when at the equator (φ=0°), then:

**Ω** x **u** = (Ωcosφ.w, 0, -Ωcosφ.u)

the u-direction (W-E) is very small because w is very small, and the w-direction (vertical) is not important because it competes with the much larger gravity term

**Note 3**: The term D/Dt has a specific meaning that might be new to many people. This is the Lagrangian differential, which is the change in the property of a fluid **following** that element of fluid. Rather than the change in property of a fluid at a fixed point in space.

D/Dt ≡ ∂/∂t + u∂/∂x + v∂/∂y + w∂/∂z, where **u** = (u,v,w) is the velocity vector

## “Blah blah blah” vs Equations

Posted in Basic Science, Commentary on January 30, 2012 | 455 Comments »

It is not surprising that the people most confused about basic physics are the ones who can’t write down an equation for their idea.

The same people are the most passionate defenders of their beliefs and I have no doubts about their sincerity.

I’ll meander into what it is I want to explain..

I found an amazing resource recently –

iTunes Ushort foriTunes University. Now I confess that I have been a little confused about angular momentum. I always knew what it was, but in the small discussion that followed The Coriolis Effect and Geostrophic Motion I found myself wondering whether conservation of angular momentum was something independent of, or a consequence of, linear momentum or some aspect of Newton’s laws of motion.It seemed as if conservation of angular momentum was an orphan of Newton’s three laws of motion. How could that be? Perhaps this conservation is just another expression of these laws in a way that I hadn’t appreciated? (Knowledgeable readers please explain).

Just around this time I found iTunes U and searched for “mechanics” and found the amazing series of lectures from MIT by Prof. Walter Lewin. A series of videos. I recommend them to anyone interested in learning some basics about forces, motion and energy. Lewin has a gift, along with an engaging style. It’s nice to see chalk boards and overhead projectors because they are probably no more in use (? young people please advise).

These lectures are not just for iPhone and iTunes people – here is the weblink.

The gift of teaching science is not in accuracy – that’s a given – the gift is in showing the principle via experiment and matching it with a theoretical derivation, and “why this should be so” and thereby producing a conceptual idea in the student.

I haven’t got to

Lecture 20: Angular Momentumyet, I’m at about lecture 11. It’s basic stuff but so easy to forget (yes, quite a lot of it has been forgotten). Especially easy to forget how different principles link together and which principle is used to derive the next principle.For example, in deriving the work done on an object, Lewin integrates force over the distance traveled and comes up with the equation for kinetic energy.

While investigating the oscillation of a mass on a spring, the equation for its harmonic motion is derived.

Every principle has an equation that can be written down.

Over the last few days, as at many times over the past two years, people have arrived on this blog to explain how radiation from the atmosphere can’t affect the surface temperature because of

blah blah blah. Whereblah blah blahsounds like it might be some kind of physics but is never accompanied by an equation.Here’s the equation I find in textbooks.

Energy absorbed from the atmosphere by the surface, E

_{a}:E

_{a}= αR_{L↓}….[eqn 1]where α = absorptivity of the surface at these wavelengths, R

_{L↓}= downward radiation from the atmosphereAnd this energy absorbed, once absorbed, is indistinguishable from the energy absorbed from the sun. 1 W/m² absorbed from the atmosphere is identical to 1 W/m² absorbed from the sun.

That’s my equation. I have provided six textbooks to explain this idea in a slightly different way in Amazing Things we Find in Textbooks – The Real Second Law of Thermodynamics.

It’s also produced by Kramm & Dlugi, who think the greenhouse effect is some unproven idea:

Now the equation shown is a pretty simple equation. The equation reproduced in the graphic above from Kramm & Dlugi looks a little more daunting but is simply adding up a number of fluxes at the surface.

Here’s what it says:

Solar radiation absorbed + longwave radiation absorbed – thermal radiation emitted – latent heat emitted – sensible heat emitted + geothermal energy supplied = 0

Or another way of thinking about it is

energy in = energy out(written as “energy in – energy out = 0“)Now one thing is not amazing to me – of the tens (hundreds?) of concerned citizens commenting on the many articles on this subject who have tried to point out my “basic mistake” and tell me that the atmosphere can’t

blah blah blah,not a single one has produced an equation.The equation might look something like this:

E

_{a}= f(α,T_{atm}-T_{sur}).R_{L↓}….[eqn 2]where T

_{atm}= temperature of the atmosphere, T_{sur}= temperature of the surfaceWith the function f being defined like this:

f(α,T

_{atm}-T_{sur}) = α, when T_{atm}≥ T_{sur}andf(α,T

_{atm}-T_{sur}) = 0, when T_{atm}< T_{sur}In English, it says something like energy from the atmosphere absorbed by the surface = 0 when the temperature of the atmosphere is less than the temperature of the surface.

I’m filling in the blanks here. No one has written down such ridiculous unphysical nonsense because it would look like ridiculous unphysical nonsense. Or perhaps I’m being unkind. Another possibility is that no one has written down such ridiculous unphysical nonsense because the proponents have no idea what an equation is, or how one can be constructed.

## My Prediction

No one will produce an equation which shows how

noatmospheric energy can be absorbed by the surface. Or how atmospheric energy absorbedcannotaffect internal energy.This is because my next questions will be:

## My Challenge

Here’s my challenge to the many people concerned about the “dangerous nonsense” of the atmospheric radiation affecting surface temperature –

Supply an equation.

If you can’t, it is because you don’t understand the subject.

It won’t stop you talking, but everyone who is wondering and reads this article will be able to join the dots together.

## The Usual Caveat

If there were only two bodies – the warmer earth and the colder atmosphere (no sun available) – then of course the earth’s temperature would decrease towards that of the atmosphere and the atmosphere’s temperature would increase towards that of the earth until both were at the same temperature – somewhere between the two starting temperatures.

However, the sun does actually exist and the question is simply whether the presence of the (colder) atmosphere affects the surface temperature compared with if no atmosphere existed. It is The Three Body Problem.

## My Second Prediction

The people not supplying the equation, the passionate believers in

blah blah blah, will not explain why an equation is not necessary or not available. Instead, continue toblah blah blah.Read Full Post »