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Jonathan Gula, M. Jeroen Molemaker, and James C. McWilliams


A set of realistic, very high-resolution simulations is made for the Gulf Stream region using the oceanic model Regional Oceanic Modeling System (ROMS) to study the life cycle of the intense submesoscale cold filaments that form on the subtropical gyre, interior wall of the Gulf Stream. The surface buoyancy gradients and ageostrophic secondary circulations intensify in response to the mesoscale strain field as predicted by the theory of filamentogenesis. It can be understood in terms of a dual frontogenetic process, along the lines understood for a single front. There is, however, a stronger secondary circulation due to the amplification at the center of a cold filament. Filament dynamics in the presence of a mixed layer are not adequately described by the classical thermal wind balance. The effect of vertical mixing of momentum due to turbulence in the surface layer is of the same order of magnitude as the pressure gradient and Coriolis force and contributes equally to a so-called turbulent thermal wind balance. Filamentogenesis is disrupted by vigorous submesoscale instabilities. The cause of the instability is the lateral shear as energy production by the horizontal Reynolds stress is the primary fluctuation source during the process; this contrasts with the usual baroclinic instability of submesoscale surface fronts. The filaments are lines of strong oceanic surface convergence as illustrated by the release of Lagrangian parcels in the Gulf Stream. Diabatic mixing is strong as parcels move across the filaments and downwell into the pycnocline. The life cycle of a filament is typically a few days in duration, from intensification to quasi stationarity to instability to dissipation.

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