The abyssal overturning circulation is thought to be primarily driven by small-scale turbulent mixing. Diagnosed water-mass transformations are dominated by rough topography “hotspots,” where the bottom enhancement of mixing causes the diffusive buoyancy flux to diverge, driving widespread downwelling in the interior—only to be overwhelmed by an even stronger upwelling in a thin bottom boundary layer (BBL). These water-mass transformations are significantly underestimated by one-dimensional (1D) sloping boundary layer solutions, suggesting the importance of three-dimensional physics. Here, we use a hierarchy of models to generalize this 1D boundary layer approach to three-dimensional eddying flows over realistically rough topography. When applied to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the Brazil Basin, the idealized simulation results are roughly consistent with available observations. Integral buoyancy budgets isolate the physical processes that contribute to realistically strong BBL upwelling. The downward diffusion of buoyancy is primarily balanced by upwelling along the sloping canyon sidewalls and the surrounding abyssal hills. These flows are strengthened by the restratifying effects of submesoscale baroclinic eddies and by the blocking of along-ridge thermal wind within the canyon. Major topographic sills block along-thalweg flows from restratifying the canyon trough, resulting in the continual erosion of the trough’s stratification. We propose simple modifications to the 1D boundary layer model that approximate each of these three-dimensional effects. These results provide local dynamical insights into mixing-driven abyssal overturning, but a complete theory will also require the nonlocal coupling to the basin-scale circulation.
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This article is included in the Oceanic Flow–Topography Interations Special Collection.
Dr. Drake’s current affiliation is Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey