We report a study of a coastal frontal zone of the southeastern United States based on a field experiment and numerical modeling. The study was conducted in the spring of 1985 during weak to moderate wind stress and strong input of buoyancy from solar radiation and river discharge. The study confirms that the structure and slope of the frontal zone depends on a combination of wind stress and cross-shelf advection of buoyancy.

A cross-shelf/depth two-dimensional (x, y), time-dependent numerical model illustrated the response of the frontal zone to the local wind stress regimes. A comparison of model results with field data showed that the model successfully predicted onsets of stratification and mixing. When alongshore wind stress was negative (southward), isopycnals in the frontal zone steepened due to a combination of horizontal advection and vertical convection. When stress was positive (northward), the offshore advection of low density water flattened the isopycnals and potential energy decreased, demonstrating that horizontal advection terms are important in the equation of conservation of buoyancy. The model predicts die offshore advection of lenses of less dense water during upwelling-favorable wind stress. These lenses are of the order of 20 km in cross-shelf scale and represent an efficient mechanism to export nearshore water. The lenses consist of a mixture of low-salinity coastal water and continental shelf water originating further offshore and advected onshore along the bottom.

The mean flow inside the frontal zone opposed the mean alongshore wind stress. Part of the alongshore flow was in geostrophy with the cross-shore pressure gradient; the other part was due to an alongshore pressure gradient force (kinematic) of about 1 × 10−6 m s−2 (equivalent sea surface slope = 1 × 10−7), which was trapped along the coast with an offshore width scale of O(10 km). It is likely that the alongshore extent of this pressure gradient was governed by the scale at which freshwater is injected to the continental shelf, i.e., 20–30 km. The pressure gradient force immediately outside of the frontal zone was about −5 × 10−7 m s−2 in the direction of the mean alongshore wind stress. It is hypothesized that, as a result of wind setup and freshwater influx, the northward pressure gradient forced over outer shelf/slope by the Gulf Stream decreases in magnitude onshore, and can even change sign across a nearshore frontal zone of O(10 km). The implied flow field near the frontal zone is therefore highly three-dimensional with |∂v/∂y|≈|∂u/∂x|, where (u, v) are velocities in the cross-shore (x) and alongshore (y) directions, respectively.

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