Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 April 2006
This article considers the instabilities of rotating, shallow-water, shear flows on an equatorial β-plane. Because of the free surface, the motion is horizontally divergent and the energy density is cubic in the field variables (i.e. in standard notation the kinetic energy density is ½ h(u2 + v2)). Marinone & Ripa (1984) observed that as a consequence of this the wave energy is no longer positive definite (there is a cross-term Uh′u′). A wave with negative wave energy can grow by transferring energy to the mean flow. Of course total (mean plus wave) energy is conserved in this process. Further, when the basic state has constant potential vorticity, we show that there are no exchanges of energy and momentum between a growing wave and the mean flow. Consequently when the basic state has no potential vorticity gradients an unstable wave has zero wave energy and the mean flow is modified so that its energy is unchanged. This result strikingly shows that energy and momentum exchanges between a growing wave and the mean flow are not generally characteristic of, or essential to, instability.
A useful conceptual tool in understanding these counterintuitive results is that of disturbance energy (or pseudoenergy) of a shear mode. This is the amount of energy in the fluid when the mode is excited minus the amount in the unperturbed medium. Equivalently, the disturbance energy is the sum of the wave energy and that in the modified mean flow. The disturbance momentum (or pseudomomentum) is defined analogously.
For an unstable mode, which grows without external sources, the disturbance energy must be zero. On the other hand the wave energy may increase to plus infinity, remain zero, or decrease to minus infinity. Thus there is a tripartite classification of instabilities. We suggest that one common feature in all three cases is that the unstable shear mode is roughly a linear combination of resonating shear modes each of which would be stable if the other were somehow suppressed. The two resonating constituents must have opposite-signed disturbance energies in order that the unstable alliance has zero disturbance energy. The instability is a transfer of disturbance energy from the member with negative disturbance energy to the one with positive disturbance energy.