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Serguei Sokolov and Stephen R. Rintoul

Abstract

Maps of the gradient of sea surface height (SSH) and sea surface temperature (SST) reveal that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) consists of multiple jets or frontal filaments. The braided and patchy nature of the gradient fields seems at odds with the traditional view, derived from hydrographic sections, that the ACC is made up of three continuous circumpolar fronts. By applying a nonlinear fitting procedure to 638 weekly maps of SSH gradient (SSH), it is shown that the distribution of maxima in SSH (i.e., fronts) is strongly peaked at particular values of absolute SSH (i.e., streamlines). The association between the jets and particular streamlines persists despite strong topographic and eddy–mean flow interactions, which cause the jets to merge, diverge, and fluctuate in intensity along their path. The SSH values corresponding to each frontal branch are nearly constant over the sector of the Southern Ocean between 100°E and 180°. The front positions inferred from SSH agree closely with positions inferred from hydrographic sections using traditional water mass criteria. Recognition of the multiple branches of the Southern Ocean fronts helps to reconcile differences between front locations determined by previous studies. Weekly maps of SSH are used to characterize the structure and variability of the ACC fronts and filaments. The path, width, and intensity of the frontal branches are influenced strongly by the bathymetry. The “meander envelopes” of the fronts are narrow on the northern slope of topographic ridges, where the sloping topography reinforces the β effect, and broader over abyssal plains.

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