What can we learn about orographic drag parametrisation from high-resolution models? A case study over the Rocky Mountains

Simon B. Vosper, Annelize van Niekerk, Andrew Elvidge, Irina Sandu, Anton Beljaars

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Comprehensive high-resolution numerical weather prediction models provide a virtual laboratory for modelling the atmospheric flow over complex mountain ranges. In this study, global and regional simulations with horizontal grid spacing ranging from 2 to 32 km, focused over the northern Rocky Mountains, are used to assess the orographic blocking and gravity wave drag parametrisations employed in the Met Office Unified Model (UM) and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts Integrated Forecasting System (IFS). The total, resolved and parametrised drag components in coarse-resolution simulations are compared with those in high-resolution simulations, in which the orographic drag processes are better resolved. The total surface stresses and gravity wave momentum fluxes in the free atmosphere of the global 16 km UM and IFS simulations are shown to compare well with 2 km regional simulations in terms of variability and mean. While the total gravity wave momentum flux is somewhat underestimated by both global models, its vertical distribution is well captured. The “seamlessness” of the parametrisation scheme is then assessed by comparing the total orographic stress – and its components – across several horizontal resolutions of the UM. The surface stress remains relatively constant across resolutions, such that the reduction in resolved orographic stress at coarser resolutions is compensated for by an almost equivalent increase in parametrised orographic stress. However, the parametrised orographic gravity wave momentum flux in the free atmosphere remains almost constant with resolution, failing to compensate for the lack of resolved flux at coarse resolutions. This leads to an underestimation of the total gravity wave drag at coarser resolutions. Further analysis suggests that this underestimation is due to the monochromatic wave assumption made by the gravity wave drag parametrisation scheme.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)979-995
Number of pages17
JournalQuarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society
Issue number727
Early online date10 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020


  • gravity wave drag
  • high-resolution modelling
  • mountains
  • numerical weather prediction
  • orographic drag

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