Multiple alternating zonal jets observed in the ocean are studied with an idealized quasigeostrophic zonal-channel model, with the supercritical, zonal background flow imposed. Both eastward and westward background flows with vertical shear are considered. The underlying nonlinear dynamics is illuminated with analysis of the vertical-mode interactions and time-mean eddy fluxes.
Interactions between the vertical modes are systematically studied. The barotropic component of the jets is maintained by both barotropic–barotropic and baroclinic–baroclinic time-mean interactions; thus, the barotropic component of the jets cannot be accurately simulated with a randomly forced barotropic model. The roles of the vertical-mode interactions in driving the baroclinic component of the jets are also characterized. Not only the first but also the second baroclinic mode is found to be important for maintaining the baroclinic component of the jets, whereas the barotropic component of the jets is maintained mostly by the barotropic and first baroclinic modes.
The properties of the eddy forcing were systematically studied. It is shown that the baroclinic component of the jets is maintained by Reynolds stress forcing and resisted by form stress forcing only in the eastward background flow. In the westward background flow, the jets are maintained by form stress forcing and resisted by Reynolds stress forcing.
The meridional scaling and kinematical properties of the jets are studied as well as the roles of meridional boundaries. The Rhines scaling for meridional spacing of the jets is not generally confirmed, and it is also shown that there are multiple stable equilibria with different numbers of the time-mean jets. It is also found that the jets are associated with alternating weak barriers to the meridional material transport, but the locations of these barriers are not unique and depend on the direction of the background flow and depth. Finally, if the channel is closed with meridional walls, then the jets become more latent but the eddy forcing properties do not change qualitatively.