Skip to main content
Maui Mesosphere and Lower Thermosphere (Maui MALT) Observations of the Evolution of Kelvin-Helmholtz Billows Formed Near 86 km Altitude
Journal of Geophysical Research
  • J. H. Hecht, Aerospace Corporation
  • Alan Z. Liu, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University - Daytona Beach
  • R. L. Walterscheid, Aerospace Corporation
  • R. J. Rudy, Aerospace Corporation
Document Type
Publication/Presentation Date

Small-scale (less than 15 km horizontal wavelength) structures known as ripples have been seen in OH airglow images for nearly 30 years. The structures have been attributed to either convective or dynamical instabilities; the latter are mainly due to large wind shears, while the former are produced by superadiabatic temperature gradients. Dynamical instabilities produce Kelvin-Helmholtz (KH) billows, which have been known for many years. However, models and laboratory experiments suggest that these billows often spawn a secondary instability that is convective in nature. While laboratory investigations see evidence of such structures, the evolution of these instabilities in the atmosphere has not been well documented. The Maui Mesosphere and Lower Thermosphere (Maui MALT) Observatory, located on Mt. Haleakala, is instrumented with a Na wind/temperature lidar that can detect dynamic or convective instabilities with 1 km vertical resolution over the altitude region from about 85 to 100 km. The observatory also includes a fast OH airglow camera, sensitive to emissions coming from approximately 82 to 92 km altitude, which obtains images every 3 s at sufficient resolution and signal to noise to see the ripples. On 15 July 2002, ripples were observed moving at an angle to their phase fronts. After a few minutes, structures appeared to form approximately perpendicular to the main ripple phase fronts. The lidar data showed that a region of dynamical instability existed from approximately 85.5 to 87 km and that the direction of the wind shear in this region was consistent with the phase fronts of the ripple features. The motion of the ripples themselves was consistent with the wind velocity at 85.9 km. Thus in this case the observed ripple motion was the advection of KH billows by the wind. The perpendicular structures were seen to be associated with the KH billows: they formed at the time when the atmosphere briefly became convectively unstable within the region where the KH billows most likely formed. Because of this and because the ripples were oriented approximately perpendicular to and moved with the billows, we speculate that they are the secondary instabilities predicted by models of KH evolution. The primary and perpendicular features were seen to decay into unstructured regions suggestive of turbulence. While the formation and decay time appear consistent with models, the horizontal wavelength of the perpendicular structures seems to be larger than models predict for the secondary instability features.

Citation Information
J. H. Hecht, Alan Z. Liu, R. L. Walterscheid and R. J. Rudy. "Maui Mesosphere and Lower Thermosphere (Maui MALT) Observations of the Evolution of Kelvin-Helmholtz Billows Formed Near 86 km Altitude" Journal of Geophysical Research Vol. 110 (2005)
Available at: