Along-track wavenumber spectral densities of sea surface height (SSH) are estimated from Jason-2 altimetry data as a function of spatial location and calendar month to understand the seasonality of meso- and submesoscale balanced dynamics across the global ocean. Regions with significant mode-1 and mode-2 baroclinic tides are rejected, restricting the analysis to the extratropics. Where balanced motion dominates, the SSH spectral density is averaged over all pass segments in a region for each calendar month and is fit to a four-parameter model consisting of a flat plateau at low wavenumbers, a transition at wavenumber k0 to a red power law spectrum k−s, and a white spectrum at high wavenumbers that models the altimeter noise. The monthly time series of the model parameters are compared to the evolution of the mixed layer. The annual mode of the spectral slope s reaches a minimum after the mixed layer deepens, and the annual mode of the bandpassed kinetic energy in the ranges [2k0, 4k0] and [k0, 2k0] peak ∼2 and ∼4 months, respectively, after the maximum of the annual mode of the mixed layer depth. This analysis is consistent with an energization of the submesoscale by a winter mixed layer instability followed by an inverse cascade of kinetic energy to the mesoscale, in agreement with prior modeling studies and in situ measurements. These results are compared to prior modeling, in situ, and satellite investigations of specific regions and are broadly consistent with them within measurement uncertainties.
This paper uses satellite observations to understand the source of ocean dynamics at the 1–100-km scales at which vertical motion becomes important and which are thus relevant for biology and for the exchange of heat and carbon with the atmosphere. The observations are consistent with a seasonal variation of dynamics at these scales, predicted by a specific theory of upper-ocean turbulence and confirmed by modeling studies and regional observations. We update prior satellite-based studies by excluding regions with competing effects, by our treatment of the noise, and by our characterization of the seasonality. This work provides a template for analyzing data from the upcoming Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite.
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