A Lagrangian framework for detecting and characterizing the descent of foehn from Alpine to local scales

Jansing, Lukas; Papritz, Lukas; Sprenger, Michael

When foehn winds surmount the Alps from the south, they often abruptly and vigorously descend into the leeside valleys on the Alpine north side. Scientists have long been intrigued by the underlying cause of this pronounced descent. While mountain gravity waves and the hydraulic theory provide theoretical foundations to explain the phenomenon, the descent of the Alpine south foehn has, so far, not been explicitly quantified and characterized for a series of real-case events. To fill this research gap, the present study employs kilometer-scale numerical simulations, combined with online trajectories calculated during model integration. In an innovative approach, we adopt the Lagrangian perspective, enabling us to identify the descent and determine its key characteristics across foehn regions spanning from the Western to the Eastern Alps.

In the first part of the study, we find the descent of foehn air parcels to be primarily confined to distinct hotspots in the immediate lee of local mountain peaks and chains, underlining the fundamental role of local topography in providing a natural anchor for the descent during south foehn. Consequently, the small-scale elevation differences in the underlying terrain are clearly linked to the magnitude of the descent, whereby other contributing factors also influence the process. Combined with the fact that the descent is mostly dry adiabatic, these results suggest that the descending motion occurs along downward-sloping isentropes associated with gravity waves. A small proportion of air parcels experience diabatic cooling and moisture uptake during the descent, which predominantly occur to the south of the Alpine crest.

The second part of the study aims to elucidate the different factors affecting the descent on a local scale. To this end, a particularly prominent hotspot situated along the Rätikon, a regional mountain range adjacent to the Rhine Valley, is examined in two detailed case studies. During periods characterized by intensified descent, local peaks along the Rätikon excite gravity waves that are linked to the descent of air parcels into the northern tributaries of the Rätikon and into the Rhine Valley. The two case studies reveal that different wave regimes, including vertically propagating waves, breaking waves, and horizontally propagating lee waves, coincide with the descent. This suggests the absence of a specific wave regime that is consistently present during foehn descent periods along the Rätikon. In addition to gravity waves, other effects likewise influence the descent activity. For example, a topographic concavity deflects the near-surface flow and thus promotes strong descent of air parcels towards the floor of the Rhine Valley. In addition, in one of our cases, nocturnal cooling introduces a smooth virtual topography that inhibits the formation of pronounced gravity waves and impedes the descent of foehn air parcels into the valley atmosphere.

In summary, this study approaches a long-standing topic in foehn research from a new angle. Given the limitations of our model simulations, we did not attempt to unequivocally resolve the causes for the descent. Nevertheless, using online trajectories, we explicitly identified and characterized the descent of foehn. The innovative Lagrangian method enabled us to diagnose descent within a comprehensive dataset, encompassing multiple case studies and a wide range of different foehn regions. The findings highlight the benefits offered by the Lagrangian perspective, which not only complements but also substantially extends the previously predominant Eulerian perspective on the descent of foehn.

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Jansing, Lukas / Papritz, Lukas / Sprenger, Michael: A Lagrangian framework for detecting and characterizing the descent of foehn from Alpine to local scales. 2024. Copernicus Publications.

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