Date of Award


Access Type

Dissertation - Open Access

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Engineering Physics


Physical Sciences

Committee Chair

Dr. Alan Z. Liu. Ph.D

First Committee Member

Dr. Michael P. Hickey, Ph.D

Second Committee Member

Dr. Shawn M. Milrad, Ph.D

Third Committee Member

Dr. Jonathan B. Snively, Ph.D


The mesosphere and lower thermosphere (MLT) (⇠80–110 km) is dominated by abundant atmospheric waves, of which gravity waves are one of the least understood due to large varieties in wave characteristics as well as potential sources. Gravity waves play an important role in the atmosphere by influencing the thermal balance and helping to drive the global circulation. But due to their sub-grid scale, the effects of gravity waves in General Circulation Models (GCMs) are mostly parameterized. The investigations of gravity waves in this dissertation are from two perspectives: the dynamical processes of gravity wave propagation and dissipation in the MLT region, and the climatology and statistical characteristics of gravity waves as physical basics of gravity wave parameterization. The studies are based on the data acquired from an airglow imager and a sodium lidar, with the assistance of some simulation data from a meso-scale numerical model and GCMs.

To understand the dynamical processes in gravity wave propagation and dissipation, a gravity wave should be resolved as fully as possible. The first topic of this dissertation is motivated by the fact that most observational instruments can only capture part of the gravity waves spectrum, either horizontal or vertical structures. Observations from multiple complementary instruments are used to study gravity waves in 3-D space. There are two cases included in this topic. In case 1, a co-located sodium lidar and an airglow imager were used to depict a comprehensive picture of a wave event at altitude between 95–105 km. Thus, the horizontal and vertical gravity waves structures and their ambient atmosphere states were fully characterized, which suggests that a gravity wave undergoes reflection at two different altitudes and near-critical layer filtering in-between. All the retrieved parameters were then applied to a 2-D numerical model whose outputs help to interpret the observations. In case 2, the lidar system is configured in a 5-direction mode, whose laser beams were pointed to zenith and 30! o↵-zenith at four cardinal directions. Thus, there is a ⇠50 km separation at ⇠90 km altitude between zenith and any o↵-zenith directions. Besides the vertical information from traditional lidar measurement profiles, horizontal wavelength and propagation direction are derived from the phase differences among measurements in different directions. With a full set of wave and background parameters, multiple dispersion and polarization relations are examined and the results validate the goodness of different assumptions involved in linear gravity wave theory.

Better knowledge of gravity waves from observational and numerical, as well as theoretical studies directly contribute to the development of physically-based parameterizations. The second topic of this dissertation is about long-term climatology and statistical characteristics of gravity waves observed by an airglow imager. The results provide some insights on how the source spectrum can be specified and tuning factors are constrained in the parameterization. Results from two sites are compared, one is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the other above the Andes Mountains. The difference and similarity provide some clues to the effects of wave sources and background flow on the gravity wave climatology and intermittency in the mesopause region.

Firstly, the long-term climatology of intrinsic wave parameters and propagation direction preferences for high-frequency quasi-monochromatic gravity waves observed by an airglow imager is presented. Wave occurrence and propagation direction are related to convective activities nearby and local background winds. The preferential wave propagation during austral summer is poleward and equatorward during winter. The estimated momentum fluxes show a clear anti-correlation with background winds. Secondly, intermittency of gravity waves near mesopause region is studied. The concept of intermittency is originally from the factors used in wave parameterization schemes to describe the fractional coverage of waves within a large spatial grid and/or temporal period in order to accurately quantify the forcing on the atmosphere by dissipating gravity waves. Intermittency of gravity waves was described by the probability density functions of absolute momentum flux and some diagnostic parameters. An explicit probability function that is a piecewise function of lognormal and power law functions is obtained from airglow data. The relative importance of abundant waves with smaller amplitudes and rare waves with dramatically large amplitudes were compared. Lastly, the duration of gravity waves in the airglow layer is studied. The observed gravity waves duration in the airglow layer is exponentially distributed. Several mechanisms that could lead to such a distribution are put forward from the perspective of wave breaking due to instabilities and blocking due to evanescent regions. Ducted propagation is also a possible factor.

Through individual cases and statistical studies, this dissertation investigates the dynamical processes and statistical characteristics of gravity waves in the MLT region. The results are expected to provide more insight in both observational and modeling research on gravity waves.