Inertial and symmetric instabilities are fluid instabilities present in atmosphere and ocean.

What are the difference between an inertial instability and a symmetric instability?

  • $\begingroup$ I think they are the same, another name for it is centrifugal instability. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2014 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ @IsopycnalOscillation I think that in some context the symmetric instability may be include in a broader class of inertial like instability. Also I don't known if the symmetric baroclinic instability, conditional symmetric instability are sub class of symmetric instability. A lot of time symmetric instability look related to density field. The inertial instability is not. I guess that in most context inertial instability and centrifugal instability may be the same. $\endgroup$
    – ucsky
    Dec 10, 2014 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ I think one needs to make it clear what is an instability. Broadly speaking, there are only two types of instabilities, global and local. In the former case, particles collaborate together globally to grow a wave of particular wavenumber that will eventually overturn into turbulent motion. The latter type of instability is more catastrophic, in the sense that a local region of the flow may be unstable, such as in gravitational instability, leading to rapid overturning and mixing. In this context, inertial instability is global and baroclinic instability is local. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2014 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ @IsopycnalOscillation baroclinic instability can be global too, see R. T. Pierrehumbert, 1984: Local and Global Baroclinic Instability of Zonally Varying Flow. J. Atmos. Sci., 41, 2141–2162 or The Global Baroclinic Instability in Accretion Disks. Hubert Klahr $\endgroup$
    – ucsky
    Dec 13, 2014 at 7:33

1 Answer 1


Inertial instability is similar to the centrifugal instability in that we are looking at the stability of parcels to horizontal perturbations. In the inertial case, however, the initial state is geostrophic balance rather than cyclostrophic balance.

Symmetric instability is the case where a parcel is inertially stable to horizontal perturbations and statically stable to vertical perturbations but unstable to perturbations between the horizontal and vertical. An additional constraint is that the flow is symmetric and only varies in two dimensions. This instability was also first examined as centrifugal instability, but with added baroclinity. Conditional symmetric instability (CSI) is related to symmetric instability with the difference being that $\overline{\theta}^*_e$ rather than $\overline{\theta}$ surfaces are used to asses the instability.

For more information on these mesoscale instabilities, you can find information on them in Markowski and Richardson (2010) pages 49 (inertial instability) and 53 (symmetric instability). Holton (4th ed, 2004) treats these instabilities on pages 204 (inertial oscillations) and 279 (symmetric instability).

Markwoski, P., and Y. Richardson, 2010: Mesoscale meterology in midlatitudes. Wiley, 430 pp.
Holton, J. R., 2004: An introduction to dynamic meteorology. Elsevier, 4th ed., 535 pp.

  • $\begingroup$ Please can you define what is $\overline{\theta}_e$ and $\overline{\theta}$. I'm not sure that I understand: you said that this instabilities are similar because we are both looking at the stability in horizontal plane but after you said that symmetric instability is unstable to perturbations between the horizontal and vertical meaning not in horizontal plane anymore. Thank you for the page numbers. $\endgroup$
    – ucsky
    Dec 13, 2014 at 8:52

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