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The Probability Distribution of Sea Surface Wind Speeds: Effects of Variable Surface Stratification and Boundary Layer Thickness

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  • 1 School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
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Abstract

Air–sea exchanges of momentum, energy, and material substances of fundamental importance to the variability of the climate system are mediated by the character of the turbulence in the atmospheric and oceanic boundary layers. Sea surface winds influence, and are influenced by, these fluxes. The probability density function (pdf) of sea surface wind speeds p(w) is a mathematical object describing the variability of surface winds that arises from the physics of the turbulent atmospheric planetary boundary layer. Previous mechanistic models of the pdf of sea surface wind speeds have considered the momentum budget of an atmospheric layer of fixed thickness and neutral stratification. The present study extends this analysis, using an idealized model to consider the influence of boundary layer thickness variations and nonneutral surface stratification on p(w). It is found that surface stratification has little direct influence on p(w), while variations in boundary layer thickness bring the predictions of the model into closer agreement with the observations. Boundary layer thickness variability influences the shape of p(w) in two ways: through episodic downward mixing of momentum into the boundary layer from the free atmosphere and through modulation of the importance (relative to other tendencies) of turbulent momentum fluxes at the surface and the boundary layer top. It is shown that the second of these influences dominates over the first.

Corresponding author address: Adam Hugh Monahan, School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria, P.O. Box 3065, STN CSC, Victoria, BC V8W 3V6, Canada. Email: monahana@uvic.ca

Abstract

Air–sea exchanges of momentum, energy, and material substances of fundamental importance to the variability of the climate system are mediated by the character of the turbulence in the atmospheric and oceanic boundary layers. Sea surface winds influence, and are influenced by, these fluxes. The probability density function (pdf) of sea surface wind speeds p(w) is a mathematical object describing the variability of surface winds that arises from the physics of the turbulent atmospheric planetary boundary layer. Previous mechanistic models of the pdf of sea surface wind speeds have considered the momentum budget of an atmospheric layer of fixed thickness and neutral stratification. The present study extends this analysis, using an idealized model to consider the influence of boundary layer thickness variations and nonneutral surface stratification on p(w). It is found that surface stratification has little direct influence on p(w), while variations in boundary layer thickness bring the predictions of the model into closer agreement with the observations. Boundary layer thickness variability influences the shape of p(w) in two ways: through episodic downward mixing of momentum into the boundary layer from the free atmosphere and through modulation of the importance (relative to other tendencies) of turbulent momentum fluxes at the surface and the boundary layer top. It is shown that the second of these influences dominates over the first.

Corresponding author address: Adam Hugh Monahan, School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria, P.O. Box 3065, STN CSC, Victoria, BC V8W 3V6, Canada. Email: monahana@uvic.ca

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