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Thermobaricity in the Transition Zones between Alpha and Beta Oceans

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  • 1 Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, and Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
  • | 2 Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland
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Abstract

The role of the ocean in Earth’s climate is fundamentally influenced by the locally dominant stratifying property (heat or salt), which in turn can be used to categorize the ocean into three classes: alpha, beta, and transition zone oceans. Alpha and beta oceans are regions where the stratification is permanently set by heat and salt, respectively. Transition zone oceans exist between alpha and beta oceans and are regions where the stratification is seasonally or intermittently set by heat or salt. Despite their large ranges of temperature and salinity, transition zone oceans are the most weakly stratified regions of the upper oceans, making them ideal locations for thermobaric effects arising from the nonlinear equation of state of seawater. Here a novel definition and quantification of alpha, beta, and transition zone oceans is presented and used to analyze 4 years (2010–13) of hydrographic data developed from the Argo profiling float array. Two types of thermobaric instabilities are defined and identified in the hydrographic data. The first type arises from the vertical relocation of individual water parcels. The second type is novel and relates to the effect of pressure on the stratification through the pressure dependence of the thermal expansion coefficient; water that is stably stratified for one pressure is not necessarily stable for other pressures. The upper 1500 m of the global ocean is composed of 67% alpha, 15% beta, and 17% transition zone oceans, with 5.7% identified as thermobarically unstable. Over 63% of these thermobarically unstable waters exist in transition zone oceans, suggesting that these are important locations for efficient vertical transport of water-mass properties.

Corresponding author address: Kial D. Stewart, Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, 142 Mills Rd., Canberra ACT 2600, Australia. E-mail: kial.stewart@anu.edu.au

Abstract

The role of the ocean in Earth’s climate is fundamentally influenced by the locally dominant stratifying property (heat or salt), which in turn can be used to categorize the ocean into three classes: alpha, beta, and transition zone oceans. Alpha and beta oceans are regions where the stratification is permanently set by heat and salt, respectively. Transition zone oceans exist between alpha and beta oceans and are regions where the stratification is seasonally or intermittently set by heat or salt. Despite their large ranges of temperature and salinity, transition zone oceans are the most weakly stratified regions of the upper oceans, making them ideal locations for thermobaric effects arising from the nonlinear equation of state of seawater. Here a novel definition and quantification of alpha, beta, and transition zone oceans is presented and used to analyze 4 years (2010–13) of hydrographic data developed from the Argo profiling float array. Two types of thermobaric instabilities are defined and identified in the hydrographic data. The first type arises from the vertical relocation of individual water parcels. The second type is novel and relates to the effect of pressure on the stratification through the pressure dependence of the thermal expansion coefficient; water that is stably stratified for one pressure is not necessarily stable for other pressures. The upper 1500 m of the global ocean is composed of 67% alpha, 15% beta, and 17% transition zone oceans, with 5.7% identified as thermobarically unstable. Over 63% of these thermobarically unstable waters exist in transition zone oceans, suggesting that these are important locations for efficient vertical transport of water-mass properties.

Corresponding author address: Kial D. Stewart, Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, 142 Mills Rd., Canberra ACT 2600, Australia. E-mail: kial.stewart@anu.edu.au
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