Motivated by the phenomena of blocked and zonal flows in the Earth atmosphere, we conducted laboratory experiments and numerical simulations to study the dynamics of an eastward jet flowing over wavenumber-two topography. The laboratory experiments studied the dynamical behavior of the flow in a barotropic rotating annulus as a function of the experimental Rossby and Ekman numbers. Two distinct flow patterns, resembling blocked and zonal flows in the atmosphere, were observed to persist for long time intervals.
Earlier model studies had suggested that the atmosphere's normally upstream-propagating Rossby waves can resonantly lock to the underlying topography, and that this topographic resonance separates zonal from blocked flows. In the annulus, the zonal flows did indeed have superresonant mean zonal velocities, while the blocked flows appear subresonant. Low-frequency variability, periodic or irregular, was present in the measured time series of azimuthal velocity in the blocked regime, with dominant periodicities in the range of 6--25 annulus rotations. Oscillations have also been detected in zonal states, with smaller amplitude and similar frequency. In addition, over a large region of parameter space the two flow states exhibited spontaneous, intermittent transitions from the one to the other.
We numerically simulated the laboratory flow geometry in a quasi-geostrophic barotropic model over a similar range of parameters. Both flow regimes, blocked and zonal, were reproduced in the simulations, with similar spatial and temporal characteristics, including the low-frequency oscillations associated with the blocked flow. The blocked and zonal flow patterns are present over wide ranges of forcing, topographic height, and bottom friction. For a significant portion of parameter space, both model flows are stable. Depending on the initial state, either the blocked or the zonal flow is obtained and persists indefinitely, showing the existence of multiple equilibria.