How much energy is available in a moist atmosphere?


It is often useful to know how much energy is available to generate motion in the atmosphere, for example in storm tracks or tropical cyclones. To this end, Lorenz (1955) developed the theory of Available Potential Energy (APE), which defines the part of the potential energy in the atmosphere that could be converted into kinetic energy.

To calculate the APE of the atmosphere, we first find the minimum total potential energy that could be obtained by adiabatic motion (no heat exchange between parcels of air). The atmospheric setup that gives this minimum is called the reference state. This is illustrated in Figure 1: in the atmosphere on the left, the denser air will move horizontally into the less dense air, but in the reference state on the right, the atmosphere is stable and no motion would occur. No further kinetic energy is expected to be generated once we reach the reference state, and so the APE of the atmosphere is its total potential energy minus the total potential energy of the reference state.

Figure 1: Construction of the APE reference state for a 2D atmosphere. The purple shading indicates the density of the air; darker colours mean denser air. In the actual state, the density stratification is not completely horizontal, which leads to the air motion shown by the orange arrows. The reference state has a stable, horizontal density stratification, so the air will not move without some disturbance.

If we think about an atmosphere that only varies in the vertical direction, it is easy to find the reference state if the atmosphere is dry. We assume that the atmosphere consists of a number of air parcels, and then all we have to do is place the parcels in order of increasing potential temperature with height. This ensures that density decreases upwards, so we have a stable atmosphere.

However, if we introduce water vapour into the atmosphere, the situation becomes more complicated. When water vapour condenses, latent heat is released, which increases the temperature of the air, decreasing its density. One moist air parcel can be denser than another at a certain height, but then less dense if they are lifted to a height where the first parcel condenses but the second one does not. The moist reference state therefore depends on the exact method used to sort the parcels by their density.

It is possible to find the rearrangement of the moist air parcels that gives the minimum possible total potential energy, using the Munkres (1957) sorting algorithm, but this takes a very long time for a large number of parcels. Lots of different sorting algorithms have therefore been developed that try to find an approximate moist reference state more quickly (the different types of algorithms are explained by Stansifer (2017) and Harris and Tailleux (2018)). However, these sorting algorithms do not try to analyse whether the parcel movements they are simulating could actually happen in the real atmosphere—for example, many work by lifting all parcels to a fixed level in the atmosphere, without considering whether the parcels could feasibly move there—and there has been little understanding of whether the reference states they find are accurate.

As part of my PhD, I have performed the first assessment of these sorting algorithms across a wide range of atmospheric data, using over 3000 soundings from both tropical island and mid-latitude continental locations (Harris and Tailleux, 2018). This showed that whilst some of the sorting algorithms can provide a good estimate of the minimum potential energy reference state, others are prone to computing a rearrangement that actually has a higher potential energy than the original atmosphere.

We also showed that a new algorithm, which does not rely on sorting procedures, can calculate APE with comparable accuracy to the sorting algorithms. This method finds a layer of near-surface buoyant parcels, and performs the rearrangement by lifting the layer upwards until it is no longer buoyant. The success of this method suggests that we do not need to rely on possibly unphysical sorting algorithms to calculate moist APE, but that we can move towards approaches that consider the physical processes generating motion in a moist atmosphere.


Harris, B. L. and R. Tailleux, 2018: Assessment of algorithms for computing moist available potential energy. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc., 144, 1501–1510,

Lorenz, E. N., 1955: Available potential energy and the maintenance of the general circulation. Tellus, 7, 157–167,

Munkres, J., 1957: Algorithms for the Assignment and Transportation Problems. J. Soc. Ind. Appl. Math., 5, 32–38,

Stansifer, E. M., P. A. O’Gorman, and J. I. Holt, 2017: Accurate computation of moist available potential energy with the Munkres algorithm. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc., 143, 288–292,

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