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Submesoscale Currents in the Subtropical Upper Ocean Observed by Long-Term High-Resolution Mooring Arrays

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  • 1 Physical Oceanography Laboratory/IAOS and Frontiers Science Center for Deep Ocean Multispheres and Earth System, Ocean University of China, Qingdao, China
  • | 2 Pilot National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology, Qingdao, China
  • | 3 Sanya Oceanographic Institution, Ocean University of China, Sanya, China
  • | 4 Department of Oceanography, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Honolulu, Hawaii
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Abstract

Although observational efforts have been made to detect submesoscale currents (submesoscales) in regions with deep mixed layers and/or strong mesoscale kinetic energy (KE), there have been no long-term submesoscale observations in subtropical gyres, which are characterized by moderate values of both mixed layer depths and mesoscale KE. To explore submesoscale dynamics in this oceanic regime, two nested mesoscale- and submesoscale-resolving mooring arrays were deployed in the northwestern Pacific subtropical countercurrent region during 2017–19. Based on the 2 years of data, submesoscales featuring order one Rossby numbers, large vertical velocities (with magnitude of 10–50 m day−1) and vertical heat flux, and strong ageostrophic KE are revealed in the upper 150 m. Although most of the submesoscales are surface intensified, they are found to penetrate far beneath the mixed layer. They are most energetic during strong mesoscale strain periods in the winter–spring season but are generally weak in the summer–autumn season. Energetics analysis suggests that the submesoscales receive KE from potential energy release but lose a portion of it through inverse cascade. Because this KE sink is smaller than the source term, a forward cascade must occur to balance the submesoscale KE budget, for which symmetric instability may be a candidate mechanism. By synthesizing observations and theories, we argue that the submesoscales are generated through a combination of baroclinic instability in the upper mixed and transitional layers and mesoscale strain-induced frontogenesis, among which the former should play a more dominant role in their final generation stage.

Supplemental information related to this paper is available at the Journals Online website: https://doi.org/10.1175/JPO-D-20-0100.s1.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding authors: Jiwei Tian, tianjw@ouc.edu.cn; Zhiwei Zhang, zzw330@ouc.edu.cn

Abstract

Although observational efforts have been made to detect submesoscale currents (submesoscales) in regions with deep mixed layers and/or strong mesoscale kinetic energy (KE), there have been no long-term submesoscale observations in subtropical gyres, which are characterized by moderate values of both mixed layer depths and mesoscale KE. To explore submesoscale dynamics in this oceanic regime, two nested mesoscale- and submesoscale-resolving mooring arrays were deployed in the northwestern Pacific subtropical countercurrent region during 2017–19. Based on the 2 years of data, submesoscales featuring order one Rossby numbers, large vertical velocities (with magnitude of 10–50 m day−1) and vertical heat flux, and strong ageostrophic KE are revealed in the upper 150 m. Although most of the submesoscales are surface intensified, they are found to penetrate far beneath the mixed layer. They are most energetic during strong mesoscale strain periods in the winter–spring season but are generally weak in the summer–autumn season. Energetics analysis suggests that the submesoscales receive KE from potential energy release but lose a portion of it through inverse cascade. Because this KE sink is smaller than the source term, a forward cascade must occur to balance the submesoscale KE budget, for which symmetric instability may be a candidate mechanism. By synthesizing observations and theories, we argue that the submesoscales are generated through a combination of baroclinic instability in the upper mixed and transitional layers and mesoscale strain-induced frontogenesis, among which the former should play a more dominant role in their final generation stage.

Supplemental information related to this paper is available at the Journals Online website: https://doi.org/10.1175/JPO-D-20-0100.s1.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding authors: Jiwei Tian, tianjw@ouc.edu.cn; Zhiwei Zhang, zzw330@ouc.edu.cn

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