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A: Vorticity and circulation

One of the di¢ culties of working with momentum (or velocity) of a parcel in ‡uid mechanics stems from the pressure forces to which the parcel is
subjected, which are continuously changing the parcel’s momentum in complicated ways (since pressure is not …xed, but itself evolves with the ‡ow).
However, while pressure gradients can change a parcel’s momentum, they
cannot change its spin, at least in certain simple situations. Consider twodimensional, inviscid ‡ow of an incompressible ‡uid:
du
=
dt

1 @p
dv
;
=
dt
0 @x

1 @p
@u @v
;
+
=0:
@x @y
0 @y

(1)

If we take the curl of the momentum equations, the pressure gradient term
disappears. So, by taking @=@x of the second of (1) minus @=@y of the …rst,
we get
@ dv
@ du
=0:
(2)
@x dt
@y dt
Moreover, a little mathematical juggling [expand the total derivatives, and
use the 3rd of (1)] shows that
@
@x

dv
dt

@
@y

du
dt

=

d
dt

@v
@x

@u
@y

:

The term inside the bracket on the RHS is the vertical component of the
vorticity, de…ned in general by
=r

u;

(3)

its vertical component is
@v @u
:
(4)
@x @y
Since the ‡ow in this barotropic problem lies within horizontal planes, only
the vertical component is nontrivial1 .
The vorticity is a local measure of the spin of the ‡uid motion. For
example if the ‡uid (relative to the rotating frame, remember) is in solid
body rotation about the origin with angular frequency !, then (see Fig. 1)
=

1

In large-scale meterology and oceanography, the general term “vorticity”is often used
to mean the vertical component, unless speci…ed otherwise.

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it needs modi…cation for non-barotropic ‡ows on a rotating planet. [In fact. v=0 has vorticity = . we have d =0 dt (5) This equation states that the time derivative following the motion of the vorticity is (in this simple case) zero. To return to (2). then. (As we shall see. A linear shear ‡ow u= y . For most purposes. so this theorem is profoundly useful for barotropic ‡ows. but we will still have a great simpli…cation by using a form of vorticity. v = !x . the vorticity is conserved following the motion. the velocity at position r = (x. u= !y.) Put 2 . we can now see that the Coriolis parameter f = 2 sin ' is just the planetary vorticity — the vertical component associated with the planetary rotation] But vorticity does not have to involve circular ‡ow. the inviscid limit is a relevant one.Figure 1: Rotation about the origin. and away from boundary layers. Therefore: In inviscid two-dimensional ‡ow. y) is U = !r. so the vorticity is = 2!— twice the rotation rate (anticlockwise being positive).

(So vorticity is a tracer. so the ‡ux (which in this 2-dimensional case has units of area 3 . Now. we can determine the ‡ow. But. or u= @ @ . as shown in Fig.) Contrast this with velocity: to know how the velocity changed between t0 and t1 . from (6). is a measure of the Figure 2: Flow is along streamlines (lines of constant ). but that that knowledge is not useful in telling us about what we want to know. it is directed along contours of . and behaves just like. Since u is normal to r . one might object that vorticity is not as interesting as velocity— that we may know what it is. Moreover. we know its vorticity is still 0 — and we know this without needing to know anything about the path the parcel took in the intervening period. ‡ux of ‡uid since the net amount of ‡uid passing per unit between the two streamlines A and B. where l is the distance AB between the streamlines. (5) says that if a ‡uid parcel is at position xo and has vorticity 0 at time t0 . To see this. and the history of the pressure gradient along this path. …rst note from the continuity equation that we can satisfy this by de…ning velocity in terms of a stream function . such that u = b z r . v= . if we know the distribution of at any time. on which the streamfunction is (say) and + is juj l. say. However. juj = j j = l. @y @x (6) which guarantees that r u = 0. 2. we would need to know its path.very simply. and moves without viscous in‡uence to position x1 at time t1 . a dye marker.

not a predictive. The circulation C around a closed contour C (see Fig. then. equation. y). if we know the vorticity distribution at any time [and note that (7) is a diagnostic. and weak where they are far apart— as is obvious from (6). so the velocity is large where the streamlines are close together. then. in terms of streamfunction. 3) is simply de…ned as Figure 3: The contour C in the de…nition of circulation. [Since (7) is a second-order.per unit time) between the streamlines is just j j. elliptic. Now. and hence the velocity. hence the importance of (5). C 4 (8) . Note that this ‡ux is constant along the streamlines. equation] we can calculate the stream function— and hence the velocities— from that knowledge. it is obvious from (4) and (6) that the vorticity can be written = @2 @2 + @x2 @y 2 r22 (7) where r22 is the two-dimensional (horizontal) Laplacian operator.] So all the information of dynamical importance is implicit in the vorticity distribution. assuming we know the boundary conditions. Note the analogy between (7) and the equation for electric potential V in the presence of a two-dimensional charge distribution q(x. In principle. (5) can be used to predict how the absolute vorticity distribution changes. we need appropriate boundary conditions to determine the solution. vorticity to charge q. So. (7) can be solved for the stream function. A concept related to vorticity is circulation. stream function is analogous to potential V . C= I u dl .

But. the circulation around a closed contour is equal to the integrated vorticity enclosed by that contour. Thus. (9) C A A where dA is the area element and A the area enclosed by C. 5 . I Z Z C = u dl = (r u) b z dA = dA .where the integral is around the contour and dl the linear increment along C. from Stokes’theorem.