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  1. Free, publicly-accessible full text available April 28, 2023
  2. This paper examines the role of wave–mean flow interaction in the onset and suddenness of stratospheric sudden warmings (SSWs). Evidence is presented that SSWs are, on average, a threshold behavior of finite-amplitude Rossby waves arising from the competition between an increasing wave activity A and a decreasing zonal-mean zonal wind [Formula: see text]. The competition puts a limit to the wave activity flux that a stationary Rossby wave can transmit upward. A rapid, spontaneous vortex breakdown occurs once the upwelling wave activity flux reaches the limit, or equivalently, once [Formula: see text] drops below a certain fraction of u REF , a wave-free, reference-state wind inverted from the zonalized quasigeostrophic potential vorticity. This fraction is 0.5 in theory and about 0.3 in reanalyses. We propose [Formula: see text] as a local, instantaneous measure of the proximity to vortex breakdown (i.e., preconditioning). The ratio r generally stays above the threshold during strong-vortex winters until a pronounced final warming, whereas during weak-vortex winters it approaches the threshold early in the season, culminating in a precipitous drop in midwinter as SSWs form. The essence of the threshold behavior is captured by a semiempirical 1D model of SSWs, similar to the “traffic jam” modelmore »of Nakamura and Huang for atmospheric blocking. This model predicts salient features of SSWs including rapid vortex breakdown and downward migration of the wave activity/zonal wind anomalies, with analytical expressions for the respective time scales. The model’s response to a variety of transient wave forcing and damping is discussed.« less