The propagation of Rossby waves on a midlatitude ? plane is investigated in the presence of density diffusion with the aid of linear hydrostatic theory. The search for wave solutions in a vertically bounded medium subject to horizontal (vertical) diffusion leads to an eigenvalue problem of second (fourth) order. Exact solutions of the problem are obtained for uniform background stratification (N), and approximate solutions are constructed for variable N using the Wentzel–Kramers–Brillouin method. Roots of the eigenvalue relations for free waves are found and discussed.
The barotropic wave of adiabatic theory is also a solution of the eigenvalue problem as this is augmented with density diffusion in the horizontal or vertical direction. The barotropic wave is undamped as fluid parcels in the wave move only horizontally and are therefore insensitive to the vortex stretching induced by mixing. On the other hand, density diffusion modifies the properties of baroclinic waves of adiabatic theory. In the presence of horizontal diffusion the baroclinic modes are damped but their vertical structure remains unaltered. The ability of horizontal diffusion to damp baroclinic waves stems from its tendency to counteract the deformation of isopycnal surfaces caused by the passage of these waves. The damping rate increases (i) linearly with horizontal diffusivity and (ii) nonlinearly with horizontal wavenumber and mode number. In the presence of vertical diffusion the baroclinic waves suffer both damping and a change in vertical structure. In the long-wave limit the damping is critical (wave decay rate numerically equal to wave frequency) and increases as the square roots of vertical diffusivity and zonal wavenumber. Density diffusion in the horizontal or vertical direction reduces the amplitude of the phase speed of westward-propagating waves. Observational estimates of eddy diffusivities suggest that horizontal and vertical mixing strongly attenuates baroclinic waves in the ocean but that vertical mixing is too weak to notably modify the vertical structure of the gravest modes.