Submesoscale baroclinic instabilities have been shown to restratify the surface mixed layer and to seasonally energize submesoscale turbulence in the upper ocean. But do these instabilities also affect the large-scale circulation and stratification of the upper thermocline? This question is addressed for the North Atlantic Subtropical Mode Water region with a series of numerical simulations at varying horizontal grid spacings (16, 8, 4, and 2 km). These simulations are realistically forced and integrated long enough for the thermocline to adjust to the presence or absence of submesoscales. Linear stability analysis indicates that a 2-km grid spacing is sufficient to resolve the most unstable mode of the wintertime mixed layer instability. As the resolution is increased, spectral slopes of horizontal kinetic energy flatten and vertical velocities increase in magnitude, consistent with previous regional and short-time simulations. The equilibrium stratification of the thermocline changes drastically as the grid spacing is refined from 16 to 8 km and mesoscale eddies are fully resolved. The thermocline stratification remains largely unchanged, however, between the 8-, 4-, and 2-km runs. This robustness is argued to arise from a mesoscale constraint on the buoyancy variance budget. Once mesoscale processes are resolved, the rate of mesoscale variance production is largely fixed. This constrains the variance destruction by submesoscale vertical buoyancy fluxes, which thus remain invariant across resolutions. The bulk impact of mixed layer instabilities on upper-ocean stratification in the Subtropical Mode Water region through an enhanced vertical buoyancy flux is therefore captured at 8-km grid spacing, even though the instabilities are severely underresolved.
Sinha’s current affiliation: Picarro Inc., Santa Clara, California.
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This article is included in the Climate Implications of Frontal Scale Air-Sea Interaction Special Collection.
This article is included in the Ocean Turbulence Special Collection.