Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 21 Issue 04

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Volume 21, No. 4
Pages 196 - 201

HANDS-ON OCEANOGRAPHY • A Tabletop Demonstration of Atmospheric Dynamics: Baroclinic Instability

Balasubramanya (Balu) T. Nadiga Jonathan M. Aurnou
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Purpose of Activity

Here we study a fundamental instability mechanism of the atmosphere that affects us very directly in terms of mid-latitude winter weather. We provide a hands-on demonstration of this instability using a setup that can be put together at home and at minimal cost. Increased sophistication that can be achieved with institutional support will aid in further quantitative analysis, but the fundamental appreciation of the phenomenon is well achieved in the simple setup described here. Students learn how a combination of rotation and buoyancy (density contrasts) underlies this instability mechanism. We naturally anticipate that when a dam breaks, gravity causes the water to flow outward. Students will learn how this behavior fundamentally changes when the system is rotating sufficiently fast. The experiment also serves as an accessible introduction to large-scale dynamics in the atmosphere.


Nadiga, B.T., and J.M. Aurnou. 2008. Hands-on oceanography: A tabletop demonstration of atmospheric dynamics—Baroclinic instability. Oceanography 21(4):196–201, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2008.24.