No access intrinsic versus practical limits of atmospheric predictability and the significance of the butterfly effect

Y. Qiang Sun, Fuqing Zhang

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61 Scopus citations


Limits of intrinsic versus practical predictability are studied through examining multiscale error growth dynamics in idealized baroclinic waves with varying degrees of convective instabilities. In the dry experiment free of moist convection, error growth is controlled primarily by baroclinic instability under which forecast accuracy is inversely proportional to the amplitude of the baroclinically unstable initial-condition error (thus the prediction can be continuously improved without limit through reducing the initial error). Under the moist environment with strong convective instability, rapid upscale growth from moist convection leads to the forecast error being increasingly less sensitive to the scale and amplitude of the initial perturbations when the initial-error amplitude is getting smaller; these diminishing returns may ultimately impose a finite-time barrier to the forecast accuracy (limit of intrinsic predictability and the so-called "butterfly effect"). However, if the initial perturbation is sufficiently large in scale and amplitude (as for most current-day operational models), the baroclinic growth of large-scale finite-amplitude initial error will control the forecast accuracy for both dry and moist baroclinic waves; forecast accuracy can be improved (thus the limit of practical predictability can be extended) through the reduction of initial-condition errors, especially those at larger scales. Regardless of the initial-perturbation scales and amplitude, the error spectrum will adjust toward the slope of the background flow. Inclusion of strong moist convection changes the mesoscale kinetic energy spectrum slope from -3 to ~-5/3. This change further highlights the importance of convection and the relevance of the butterfly effect to both the intrinsic and practical limits of atmospheric predictability, especially at meso- and convective scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1419-1438
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of the Atmospheric Sciences
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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