06 Apr 2023
 | 06 Apr 2023

Adverse impact of terrain steepness on thermally-driven initiation of orographic convection

Matthias Göbel, Stefano Serafin, and Mathias Walter Rotach

Abstract. Diurnal mountain winds precondition the environment for deep moist convection through horizontal and vertical transport of heat and moisture. They also play a key role in convection initiation, especially in strongly inhibited environments, by lifting air parcels above the level of free convection. Despite its relevance, the impact of these thermally-driven circulations on convection initiation has yet to be examined systematically. Using idealized large-eddy simulations with the WRF model, we study the effect of cross-valley circulations on convection initiation under synoptically undisturbed and convectively inhibited conditions, considering quasi-2D mountain ranges of different heights and widths. In particular, we contrast convection initiation over relatively steep mountains (20 % average slope) and moderately steep ones (10 %). One distinctive finding is that, under identical environmental conditions, relatively steep mountain ranges lead to a delayed onset and lower intensity of deep moist convection, although they cause stronger thermal updrafts at ridge tops. This finding cannot be explained considering the temporal evolution of convective indices, such as convective inhibition and convective available potential energy. Analysis of the ridgetop moisture budget reveals the competing effects of moisture advection by the mean thermally-driven circulation and turbulent moisture transport. In general, at mountaintops, the divergence of the turbulent moisture flux offsets the convergence of the advective moisture flux almost entirely. The weaker total moistening found over steep mountains can be explained by considering that buoyant updrafts over their ridgetops are on average relatively narrow. Thus, they are more strongly affected by the turbulent entrainment of environmental air, which depletes their moisture and cloud water content and makes them less effective at initiating deep convection. In our simulations, convective updrafts over moderately steep mountains, on the other hand, gain more moisture from the vapor flux at cloud base and lose less moisture due to horizontal vapor fluxes over the course of the day, leading to significantly higher moisture accumulation. The precipitation efficiency, a measure of how much of the condensed water eventually precipitates, is also considerably larger over the moderately steep mountains. The weaker convection over steep mountains is a robust finding, valid over a range of background environmental stratifications and mountain sizes.

Matthias Göbel et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2023-648', Anonymous Referee #1, 05 May 2023
  • RC2: 'Comment on egusphere-2023-648', Anonymous Referee #2, 15 May 2023

Matthias Göbel et al.

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Data and code for "Adverse impact of terrain steepness on thermally-driven initiation of orographic convection" Matthias Göbel

Matthias Göbel et al.


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Short summary
On summer days over mountains, up-slope winds transport moist air towards mountain tops and beyond, making local rain showers more likely. We use idealized simulations to investigate how mountain steepness affects this mechanism. We find that steeper mountains lead to a delayed onset and lower intensity of the storms, because the thermal updrafts over the ridges are narrower and thus more prone to the intrusion of dry air from the surrounding environment.