Brunt–Väisälä frequency

In atmospheric dynamics, oceanography, asteroseismology and geophysics, the Brunt–Väisälä frequency, or buoyancy frequency, is a measure of the stability of a fluid to vertical displacements such as those caused by convection. More precisely it is the frequency at which a vertically displaced parcel will oscillate within a statically stable environment. It is named after David Brunt and Vilho Väisälä. It can be used as a measure of atmospheric stratification.

Derivation for a general fluidEdit

Consider a parcel of water or gas that has density  . This parcel is in an environment of other water or gas particles where the density of the environment is a function of height:  . If the parcel is displaced by a small vertical increment  , and it maintains its original density, so that its volume does not change, it will be subject to an extra gravitational force against its surroundings of:


where   is the gravitational acceleration, and is defined to be positive. We make a linear approximation to  , and move   to the RHS:


The above second-order differential equation has straightforward solutions of:


where the Brunt–Väisälä frequency   is:[1]


For negative  , the displacement   has oscillating solutions (and N gives our angular frequency). If it is positive, then there is run away growth – i.e. the fluid is statically unstable.

In meteorology and astrophysicsEdit

For a gas parcel, the density will only remain fixed as assumed in the previous derivation if the pressure,  , is constant with height, which is not true in an atmosphere confined by gravity. Instead, the parcel will expand adiabatically as the pressure declines. Therefore a more general formulation used in meteorology is:

 , where   is potential temperature,   is the local acceleration of gravity, and   is geometric height.[2]

Since  , where   is a constant reference pressure, for a perfect gas this expression is equivalent to:


where in the last form  , the adiabatic index. Using the ideal gas law, we can eliminate the temperature to express   in terms of pressure and density:


This version is in fact more general than the first, as it applies when the chemical composition of the gas varies with height, and also for imperfect gases with variable adiabatic index, in which case  , i.e. the derivative is taken at constant entropy,  .[3]

If a gas parcel is pushed up and  , the air parcel will move up and down around the height where the density of the parcel matches the density of the surrounding air. If the air parcel is pushed up and  , the air parcel will not move any further. If the air parcel is pushed up and  , (i.e. the Brunt–Väisälä frequency is imaginary), then the air parcel will rise and rise unless   becomes positive or zero again further up in the atmosphere. In practice this leads to convection, and hence the Schwarzschild criterion for stability against convection (or the Ledoux criterion if there is compositional stratification) is equivalent to the statement that   should be positive.

The Brunt–Väisälä frequency commonly appears in the thermodynamic equations for the atmosphere and in the structure of stars.

In oceanographyEdit

In the ocean where salinity is important, or in fresh water lakes near freezing, where density is not a linear function of temperature:

where  , the potential density, depends on both temperature and salinity. An example of Brunt–Väisälä oscillation in a density stratified liquid can be observed in the 'Magic Cork' movie here .


The concept derives from Newton's Second Law when applied to a fluid parcel in the presence of a background stratification (in which the density changes in the vertical - i.e. the density can be said to have multiple vertical layers). The parcel, perturbed vertically from its starting position, experiences a vertical acceleration. If the acceleration is back towards the initial position, the stratification is said to be stable and the parcel oscillates vertically. In this case, N2 > 0 and the angular frequency of oscillation is given N. If the acceleration is away from the initial position (N2 < 0), the stratification is unstable. In this case, overturning or convection generally ensues.

The Brunt–Väisälä frequency relates to internal gravity waves: it is the frequency when the waves propagate horizontally; and it provides a useful description of atmospheric and oceanic stability.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Vallis, Geoffrey K. (2017). Atmospheric and oceanic fluid dynamics: fundamentals and large-scale circulation (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781107588417. ISBN 9781107588417. OCLC 990033511.
  2. ^ Emmanuel, K.A. (1994). Atmospheric Convection. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1002/joc.3370150709. ISBN 0195066308.
  3. ^ Christensen-Dalsgaard, Jørgen (2014), Lecture Notes on Stellar Oscillations (PDF) (5th ed.)