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Near-Inertial Waves in Strongly Baroclinic Currents

Daniel B. WhittEnvironmental Earth System Science Department, Stanford University, Stanford, California

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Leif N. ThomasEnvironmental Earth System Science Department, Stanford University, Stanford, California

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Abstract

An analysis and physical interpretation of near-inertial waves (NIWs) propagating perpendicular to a steady, two-dimensional, strongly baroclinic, geostrophic current are presented. The analysis is appropriate for geostrophic currents with order-one Richardson numbers such as those associated with fronts experiencing strong, wintertime atmospheric forcing. This work highlights the underlying physics behind the properties of the NIWs using parcel arguments and the principles of conservation of density and absolute momentum. Baroclinicity introduces lateral gradients in density and vertical gradients in absolute momentum that significantly modify the dispersion and polarization relations and propagation of NIWs relative to classical internal wave theory. In particular, oscillations at the minimum frequency are not horizontal but, instead, are slanted along isopycnals. Furthermore, the polarization of the horizontal velocity is not necessarily circular at the minimum frequency and the spiraling of the wave’s velocity vector with time and depth can be in the opposite direction from that predicted by classical theory. Ray tracing and numerical solutions illustrate the trapping and amplification of NIWs in regions of strong baroclinicity where the wave frequency is lower than the effective Coriolis frequency. The largest amplification is found at slantwise critical layers that align with the tilted isopycnals of the current. Such slantwise critical layers are seen in wintertime observations of the Gulf Stream and, consistent with the theory, coincide with regions of intensified ageostrophic shear characterized by a banded structure that is spatially coherent along isopycnals.

Corresponding author address: Daniel B. Whitt, Stanford University, 473 Via Ortega, Room 140, MC 4216, Stanford, CA 94305. E-mail: dwhitt@stanford.edu

Abstract

An analysis and physical interpretation of near-inertial waves (NIWs) propagating perpendicular to a steady, two-dimensional, strongly baroclinic, geostrophic current are presented. The analysis is appropriate for geostrophic currents with order-one Richardson numbers such as those associated with fronts experiencing strong, wintertime atmospheric forcing. This work highlights the underlying physics behind the properties of the NIWs using parcel arguments and the principles of conservation of density and absolute momentum. Baroclinicity introduces lateral gradients in density and vertical gradients in absolute momentum that significantly modify the dispersion and polarization relations and propagation of NIWs relative to classical internal wave theory. In particular, oscillations at the minimum frequency are not horizontal but, instead, are slanted along isopycnals. Furthermore, the polarization of the horizontal velocity is not necessarily circular at the minimum frequency and the spiraling of the wave’s velocity vector with time and depth can be in the opposite direction from that predicted by classical theory. Ray tracing and numerical solutions illustrate the trapping and amplification of NIWs in regions of strong baroclinicity where the wave frequency is lower than the effective Coriolis frequency. The largest amplification is found at slantwise critical layers that align with the tilted isopycnals of the current. Such slantwise critical layers are seen in wintertime observations of the Gulf Stream and, consistent with the theory, coincide with regions of intensified ageostrophic shear characterized by a banded structure that is spatially coherent along isopycnals.

Corresponding author address: Daniel B. Whitt, Stanford University, 473 Via Ortega, Room 140, MC 4216, Stanford, CA 94305. E-mail: dwhitt@stanford.edu
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