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The Location of Diapycnal Mixing and the Meridional Overturning Circulation

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  • 1 Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • | 2 School of Ocean and Earth Science, Southampton Oceanography Centre, Southampton, United Kingdom
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Abstract

The large-scale consequences of diapycnal mixing location are explored using an idealized three-dimensional model of buoyancy-forced flow in a single hemisphere. Diapycnal mixing is most effective in supporting a strong meridional overturning circulation (MOC) if mixing occurs in regions of strong stratification, that is, in the low-latitude thermocline where diffusion causes strong vertical buoyancy fluxes. Where stratification is weak, such as at high latitudes, diapycnal mixing plays little role in determining MOC strength, consistent with weak diffusive buoyancy fluxes at these latitudes. Boundary mixing is more efficient than interior mixing at driving the MOC; with interior mixing the planetary vorticity constraint inhibits the communication of interior water mass properties and the eastern boundary. Mixing below the thermocline affects the abyssal stratification and upwelling profile but does not contribute significantly to the meridional flow through the thermocline or the ocean's meridional heat transport. The abyssal heat budget is dominated by the downward mass transport of buoyant water versus the spread of denser water tied to the properties of deep convection, with mixing of minor importance. These results are in contrast to the widespread expectation that the observed enhanced abyssal mixing can maintain the MOC; rather, they suggest that enhanced boundary mixing in the thermocline needs to be identified in observations.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Jeffery R. Scott, MIT, Room 54-1711, Cambridge, MA 02139. Email: jscott@mit.edu

Abstract

The large-scale consequences of diapycnal mixing location are explored using an idealized three-dimensional model of buoyancy-forced flow in a single hemisphere. Diapycnal mixing is most effective in supporting a strong meridional overturning circulation (MOC) if mixing occurs in regions of strong stratification, that is, in the low-latitude thermocline where diffusion causes strong vertical buoyancy fluxes. Where stratification is weak, such as at high latitudes, diapycnal mixing plays little role in determining MOC strength, consistent with weak diffusive buoyancy fluxes at these latitudes. Boundary mixing is more efficient than interior mixing at driving the MOC; with interior mixing the planetary vorticity constraint inhibits the communication of interior water mass properties and the eastern boundary. Mixing below the thermocline affects the abyssal stratification and upwelling profile but does not contribute significantly to the meridional flow through the thermocline or the ocean's meridional heat transport. The abyssal heat budget is dominated by the downward mass transport of buoyant water versus the spread of denser water tied to the properties of deep convection, with mixing of minor importance. These results are in contrast to the widespread expectation that the observed enhanced abyssal mixing can maintain the MOC; rather, they suggest that enhanced boundary mixing in the thermocline needs to be identified in observations.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Jeffery R. Scott, MIT, Room 54-1711, Cambridge, MA 02139. Email: jscott@mit.edu

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