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Intensification of Ocean Fronts by Down-Front Winds

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  • 1 School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
  • | 2 Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
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Abstract

Many ocean fronts experience strong local atmospheric forcing by down-front winds, that is, winds blowing in the direction of the frontal jet. An analytic theory and nonhydrostatic numerical simulations are used to demonstrate the mechanism by which down-front winds lead to frontogenesis. When a wind blows down a front, cross-front advection of density by Ekman flow results in a destabilizing wind-driven buoyancy flux (WDBF) equal to the product of the Ekman transport with the surface lateral buoyancy gradient. Destabilization of the water column results in convection that is localized to the front and that has a buoyancy flux that is scaled by the WDBF. Mixing of buoyancy by convection, and Ekman pumping/suction resulting from the cross-front contrast in vertical vorticity of the frontal jet, drive frontogenetic ageostrophic secondary circulations (ASCs). For mixed layers with negative potential vorticity, the most frontogenetic ASCs select a preferred cross-front width and do not translate with the Ekman transport, but instead remain stationary in space. Frontal intensification occurs within several inertial periods and is faster the stronger the wind stress. Vertical circulation is characterized by subduction on the dense side of the front and upwelling along the frontal interface and scales with the Ekman pumping and convective mixing of buoyancy. Cross-front sections of density, potential vorticity, and velocity at the subpolar front of the Japan/East Sea suggest that frontogenesis by down-front winds was active during cold-air outbreaks and could result in strong vertical circulation.

Corresponding author address: Leif N. Thomas, School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Box 355351, Seattle, WA 98195-5351. Email: leif@ocean.washington.edu

Abstract

Many ocean fronts experience strong local atmospheric forcing by down-front winds, that is, winds blowing in the direction of the frontal jet. An analytic theory and nonhydrostatic numerical simulations are used to demonstrate the mechanism by which down-front winds lead to frontogenesis. When a wind blows down a front, cross-front advection of density by Ekman flow results in a destabilizing wind-driven buoyancy flux (WDBF) equal to the product of the Ekman transport with the surface lateral buoyancy gradient. Destabilization of the water column results in convection that is localized to the front and that has a buoyancy flux that is scaled by the WDBF. Mixing of buoyancy by convection, and Ekman pumping/suction resulting from the cross-front contrast in vertical vorticity of the frontal jet, drive frontogenetic ageostrophic secondary circulations (ASCs). For mixed layers with negative potential vorticity, the most frontogenetic ASCs select a preferred cross-front width and do not translate with the Ekman transport, but instead remain stationary in space. Frontal intensification occurs within several inertial periods and is faster the stronger the wind stress. Vertical circulation is characterized by subduction on the dense side of the front and upwelling along the frontal interface and scales with the Ekman pumping and convective mixing of buoyancy. Cross-front sections of density, potential vorticity, and velocity at the subpolar front of the Japan/East Sea suggest that frontogenesis by down-front winds was active during cold-air outbreaks and could result in strong vertical circulation.

Corresponding author address: Leif N. Thomas, School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Box 355351, Seattle, WA 98195-5351. Email: leif@ocean.washington.edu

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