Vertical fluxes conditioned on vorticity and strain reveal submesoscale ventilation

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  • 1 School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
  • | 2 Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University, New York, NY, USA
  • | 3 Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University, New York, NY, USA
  • | 4 Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, NY, USA
  • | 5 School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
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Abstract

It has been hypothesized that submesoscale flows play an important role in the vertical transport of climatically important tracers, due to their strong associated vertical velocities. However, the multi-scale, non-linear, and Lagrangian nature of transport makes it challenging to attribute proportions of the tracer fluxes to certain processes, scales, regions, or features. Here we show that criteria based on the surface vorticity and strain joint probability distribution function (JPDF) effectively decomposes the surface velocity field into distinguishable flow regions, and different flow features, like fronts or eddies, are contained in different flow regions. The JPDF has a distinct shape and approximately parses the flow into different scales, as stronger velocity gradients are usually associated with smaller scales. Conditioning the vertical tracer transport on the vorticity-strain JPDF can therefore help to attribute the transport to different types of flows and scales. Applied to a set of idealized Antarctic Circumpolar Current simulations that vary only in horizontal resolution, this diagnostic approach demonstrates that small-scale strain dominated regions that are generally associated with submesoscale fronts, despite their minuscule spatial footprint, play an outsized role in exchanging tracers across the mixed layer base and are an important contributor to the large-scale tracer budgets. Resolving these flows not only adds extra flux at the small scales, but also enhances the flux due to the larger-scale flows.

Corresponding author address: Dhruv Balwada, School of Oceanography, 1503 NE Boat Street, Box 357940, Seattle, WA 98195-7940. E-mail: dbalwada@uw.edu

Abstract

It has been hypothesized that submesoscale flows play an important role in the vertical transport of climatically important tracers, due to their strong associated vertical velocities. However, the multi-scale, non-linear, and Lagrangian nature of transport makes it challenging to attribute proportions of the tracer fluxes to certain processes, scales, regions, or features. Here we show that criteria based on the surface vorticity and strain joint probability distribution function (JPDF) effectively decomposes the surface velocity field into distinguishable flow regions, and different flow features, like fronts or eddies, are contained in different flow regions. The JPDF has a distinct shape and approximately parses the flow into different scales, as stronger velocity gradients are usually associated with smaller scales. Conditioning the vertical tracer transport on the vorticity-strain JPDF can therefore help to attribute the transport to different types of flows and scales. Applied to a set of idealized Antarctic Circumpolar Current simulations that vary only in horizontal resolution, this diagnostic approach demonstrates that small-scale strain dominated regions that are generally associated with submesoscale fronts, despite their minuscule spatial footprint, play an outsized role in exchanging tracers across the mixed layer base and are an important contributor to the large-scale tracer budgets. Resolving these flows not only adds extra flux at the small scales, but also enhances the flux due to the larger-scale flows.

Corresponding author address: Dhruv Balwada, School of Oceanography, 1503 NE Boat Street, Box 357940, Seattle, WA 98195-7940. E-mail: dbalwada@uw.edu
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