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Daniel B. Whitt

Abstract

The impacts of rainy days (>24 mm) on the physics of the surface atmosphere and upper ocean are characterized in the central Pacific Ocean (140°–170°W) on the equator, where deep-cycle turbulence substantially influences the sea surface temperature and air–sea heat flux on diurnal and longer time scales. Here, rainfall is relatively weak on average (1–3 mm day−1), and enough rain to substantially alter the diurnal cycle of upper-ocean buoyancy only occurs on the order of once in 100 days, albeit more frequently to the west and during El Niño and boreal winter. Rainy days are associated with multiple systematic changes in the surface atmosphere, but the freshwater and the reduction in daily downwelling shortwave radiation (by ∼50 W m−2) are codominant and drive systematic changes in the ocean during and the day after the rainy day. These two drivers explain ensemble average reductions in the upper-ocean salinity (−0.12 psu at 1 m) and temperature (−0.16°C at 1 m) and increases in buoyancy (+0.0005 m s−2 at 1 m), which are typically confined to a shallow fresh/warm mixing layer on the order of 10 m thick in the daytime. At deeper depths, the intrinsic ocean temperature, salinity, and velocity variability make it challenging to extract an ensemble average response to rainy days in observations, but some examples from observations and large-eddy simulations suggest that rainfall can significantly reduce the vertical extent and heat flux in the deep-cycle turbulence, although the bulk energetics and buoyancy flux of the turbulence are not necessarily modified by rain.

Significance Statement

Rain significantly impacts social and ecological systems in many ways that are readily apparent in populated areas, but the impacts of rain over the ocean are not as well known. In this paper, sustained in situ observations over decades and highly resolved numerical simulations of ocean turbulence during a few rain events are used to characterize the impacts of rainy days on the surface–atmosphere and upper-ocean physics in the center of action of El Niño in the central equatorial Pacific. These results contribute to broader efforts to observe, understand, and accurately model the surface atmosphere, the upper ocean, and air–sea interaction in the central Pacific and thereby improve long-range weather and climate observations and predictions.

Open access
Clifford Watkins
and
Daniel B. Whitt

Abstract

A large-eddy simulation (LES) initialized and forced using observations is used to conduct a process study of ocean surface boundary layer (OSBL) turbulence in a 2-km box of ocean nominally under Hurricane Irene (2011) in 35 m of water on the New Jersey shelf. The LES captures the observed deepening, cooling, and persistent stratification of the OSBL as the storm approaches and passes. As the storm approaches, surface-intensified Ekman-layer rolls, with horizontal wavelengths of about 200 m and horizontal-to-vertical aspect and velocity magnitude ratios of about 20, dominate the kinetic energy and increase the turbulent Prandtl number from about 1 to 1.5 due partially to their restratifying vertical buoyancy flux. However, as the storm passes, these rolls are washed away in a few hours due to the rapid rotation of the wind. In the bulk OSBL, the gradient Richardson number of the mean profiles remains just above (just below) 1/4 as the storm approaches (passes). At the base of the OSBL, large-aspect-ratio Kelvin–Helmholtz billows, with Prandtl number below 1, intermittently dominate the kinetic energy. Overall, large-aspect-ratio covariance modifies the net vertical fluxes of buoyancy and momentum by about 10%, but these fluxes and the analogous diffusivity and viscosity still approximately collapse to time-independent dimensionless profiles, despite rapid changes in the forcing and the large structures. That is, the evolutions of the mean temperature and momentum profiles, which are driven by the net vertical flux convergences, mainly reflect the evolution of the wind and the initial ocean temperature profile.

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Daniel B. Whitt
and
Leif N. Thomas

Abstract

An analysis and physical interpretation of near-inertial waves (NIWs) propagating perpendicular to a steady, two-dimensional, strongly baroclinic, geostrophic current are presented. The analysis is appropriate for geostrophic currents with order-one Richardson numbers such as those associated with fronts experiencing strong, wintertime atmospheric forcing. This work highlights the underlying physics behind the properties of the NIWs using parcel arguments and the principles of conservation of density and absolute momentum. Baroclinicity introduces lateral gradients in density and vertical gradients in absolute momentum that significantly modify the dispersion and polarization relations and propagation of NIWs relative to classical internal wave theory. In particular, oscillations at the minimum frequency are not horizontal but, instead, are slanted along isopycnals. Furthermore, the polarization of the horizontal velocity is not necessarily circular at the minimum frequency and the spiraling of the wave’s velocity vector with time and depth can be in the opposite direction from that predicted by classical theory. Ray tracing and numerical solutions illustrate the trapping and amplification of NIWs in regions of strong baroclinicity where the wave frequency is lower than the effective Coriolis frequency. The largest amplification is found at slantwise critical layers that align with the tilted isopycnals of the current. Such slantwise critical layers are seen in wintertime observations of the Gulf Stream and, consistent with the theory, coincide with regions of intensified ageostrophic shear characterized by a banded structure that is spatially coherent along isopycnals.

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Daniel B. Whitt
and
John R. Taylor

Abstract

Atmospheric storms are an important driver of changes in upper-ocean stratification and small-scale (1–100 m) turbulence. Yet, the modifying effects of submesoscale (0.1–10 km) motions in the ocean mixed layer on stratification and small-scale turbulence during a storm are not well understood. Here, large-eddy simulations are used to study the coupled response of submesoscale and small-scale turbulence to the passage of an idealized autumn storm, with a wind stress representative of a storm observed in the North Atlantic above the Porcupine Abyssal Plain. Because of a relatively shallow mixed layer and a strong downfront wind, existing scaling theory predicts that submesoscales should be unable to restratify the mixed layer during the storm. In contrast, the simulations reveal a persistent and strong mean stratification in the mixed layer both during and after the storm. In addition, the mean dissipation rate remains elevated throughout the mixed layer during the storm, despite the strong mean stratification. These results are attributed to strong spatial variability in stratification and small-scale turbulence at the submesoscale and have important implications for sampling and modeling submesoscales and their effects on stratification and turbulence in the upper ocean.

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Daniel B. Whitt
and
John R. Taylor
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Daniel B. Whitt
and
Leif N. Thomas

Abstract

A slab mixed layer model and two-dimensional numerical simulations are used to study the generation and energetics of near-inertial oscillations in a unidirectional, laterally sheared geostrophic current forced by oscillatory winds. The vertical vorticity of the current ζ g modifies the effective Coriolis frequency , which is equivalent to the local resonant forcing frequency. In addition, the resonant oscillatory velocity response is elliptical, not circular, because the oscillation periodically exchanges energy with the geostrophic flow via shear production. With damping, this energy exchange becomes permanent, but its magnitude and sign depend strongly on the angle of the oscillatory wind vector relative to the geostrophic flow. However, for a current forced by an isotropic distribution of wind directions, the response averaged over all wind angles results in a net extraction of energy from the geostrophic flow that scales as the wind work on the inertial motions times (ζ g /f)2 for ζ g f. For ζ g ~ f, this sink of geostrophic kinetic energy preferentially damps flows with anticyclonic vorticity and thus could contribute toward shaping the positively skewed vorticity distribution observed in the upper ocean.

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Daniel B. Whitt
,
Leif N. Thomas
,
Jody M. Klymak
,
Craig M. Lee
, and
Eric A. D’Asaro

Abstract

High-resolution, nearly Lagrangian observations of velocity and density made in the North Wall of the Gulf Stream reveal banded shear structures characteristic of near-inertial waves (NIWs). Here, the current follows submesoscale dynamics, with Rossby and Richardson numbers near one, and the vertical vorticity is positive. This allows for a unique analysis of the interaction of NIWs with a submesoscale current dominated by cyclonic as opposed to anticyclonic vorticity. Rotary spectra reveal that the vertical shear vector rotates primarily clockwise with depth and with time at frequencies near and above the local Coriolis frequency f. At some depths, more than half of the measured shear variance is explained by clockwise rotary motions with frequencies between f and 1.7f. The dominant superinertial frequencies are consistent with those inferred from a dispersion relation for NIWs in submesoscale currents that depends on the observed aspect ratio of the wave shear as well as the vertical vorticity, baroclinicity, and stratification of the balanced flow. These observations motivate a ray tracing calculation of superinertial wave propagation in the North Wall, where multiple filaments of strong cyclonic vorticity strongly modify wave propagation. The calculation shows that the minimum permissible frequency for inertia–gravity waves is mostly greater than the Coriolis frequency, and superinertial waves can be trapped and amplified at slantwise critical layers between cyclonic vortex filaments, providing a new plausible explanation for why the observed shear variance is dominated by superinertial waves.

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