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The Eddy-Driven Thermocline

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  • 1 Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California
  • | 2 ISAC-CNR, Bologna, Italy
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Abstract

The role of baroclinic eddies in transferring thermal gradients laterally, and thus determining the stratification of the ocean, is examined. The hypothesis is that the density differences imposed at the surface by differential heating are a source of available potential energy that can be partially released by mesocale eddies with horizontal scales on the order of 100 km. Eddy fluxes balance the diapycnal mixing of heat and thus determine the vertical scale of penetration of horizontal thermal gradients (i.e., the depth of the thermocline). This conjecture is in contrast with the current thinking that the deep stratification is determined by a balance between diapycnal mixing and the large-scale thermohaline circulation. Eddy processes are analyzed in the context of a rapidly rotating primitive equation flow driven by specified surface temperature, with isotropic diffusion and viscosity. The barotropic component of the eddies is found to be responsible for most of the heat flux, and so the eddy transport is horizontal rather than isopycnal. This eddy transport takes place in the shallow surface layer where eddies, as well as the mean temperature, undergo diabatic, irreversible mixing. Scaling laws for the depth of the thermocline as a function of the external parameters are proposed. In the classical thermocline theory, the depth of the thermocline depends on the diffusivity, the rotation rate, and the imposed temperature gradient. In this study the authors find an additional dependence on the viscosity and on the domain width.

Corresponding author address: Paola Cessi, UCSD-0213, La Jolla, CA 92093-0213. Email: pcessi@ucsd.edu

Abstract

The role of baroclinic eddies in transferring thermal gradients laterally, and thus determining the stratification of the ocean, is examined. The hypothesis is that the density differences imposed at the surface by differential heating are a source of available potential energy that can be partially released by mesocale eddies with horizontal scales on the order of 100 km. Eddy fluxes balance the diapycnal mixing of heat and thus determine the vertical scale of penetration of horizontal thermal gradients (i.e., the depth of the thermocline). This conjecture is in contrast with the current thinking that the deep stratification is determined by a balance between diapycnal mixing and the large-scale thermohaline circulation. Eddy processes are analyzed in the context of a rapidly rotating primitive equation flow driven by specified surface temperature, with isotropic diffusion and viscosity. The barotropic component of the eddies is found to be responsible for most of the heat flux, and so the eddy transport is horizontal rather than isopycnal. This eddy transport takes place in the shallow surface layer where eddies, as well as the mean temperature, undergo diabatic, irreversible mixing. Scaling laws for the depth of the thermocline as a function of the external parameters are proposed. In the classical thermocline theory, the depth of the thermocline depends on the diffusivity, the rotation rate, and the imposed temperature gradient. In this study the authors find an additional dependence on the viscosity and on the domain width.

Corresponding author address: Paola Cessi, UCSD-0213, La Jolla, CA 92093-0213. Email: pcessi@ucsd.edu

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