Influence of Environmental Humidity on Tropical Cyclone Size

Hill, Kevin A.; Lackmann, Gary M.
October 2009
Monthly Weather Review;Oct2009, Vol. 137 Issue 10, p3294
Academic Journal
Observations demonstrate that the radius of maximum winds in tropical cyclones (TCs) can vary by an order of magnitude; similar size differences are evident in other spatial measures of the wind field as well as in cloud and precipitation fields. Many TC impacts are related to storm size, yet the physical mechanisms that determine TC size are not well understood and have received limited research attention. Presented here is a hypothesis suggesting that one factor controlling TC size is the environmental relative humidity, to which the intensity and coverage of precipitation occurring outside the TC core is strongly sensitive. From a potential vorticity (PV) perspective, the lateral extent of the TC wind field is linked to the size and strength of the associated cyclonic PV anomalies. Latent heat release in outer rainbands can result in the diabatic lateral expansion of the cyclonic PV distribution and balanced wind field. Results of idealized numerical experiments are consistent with the hypothesized sensitivity of TC size to environmental humidity. Simulated TCs in dry environments exhibit reduced precipitation outside the TC core, a narrower PV distribution, and reduced lateral extension of the wind field relative to storms in more moist environments. The generation of diabatic PV in spiral bands is critical to lateral wind field expansion in the outer portion of numerically simulated tropical cyclones. Breaking vortex Rossby waves in the eyewall lead to an expansion of the eye and the weakening of inner-core PV gradients in the moist environment simulation. Feedback mechanisms involving surface fluxes and the efficiency of diabatic PV production with an expanding cyclonic wind field are discussed.


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