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R. Justin Small
,
Frank O. Bryan
,
Stuart P. Bishop
,
Sarah Larson
, and
Robert A. Tomas

Abstract

A key question in climate modeling is to what extent sea surface temperature and upper-ocean heat content are driven passively by air–sea heat fluxes, as opposed to forcing by ocean dynamics. This paper investigates the question using a climate model at different resolutions, and observations, for monthly variability. At the grid scale in a high-resolution climate model with resolved mesoscale ocean eddies, ocean dynamics (i.e., ocean heat flux convergence) dominates upper 50 m heat content variability over most of the globe. For deeper depths of integration to 400 m, the heat content variability at the grid scale is almost totally controlled by ocean heat flux convergence. However, a strong dependence on spatial scale is found—for the upper 50 m of ocean, after smoothing the data to around 7°, air–sea heat fluxes, augmented by Ekman heat transports, dominate. For deeper depths of integration to 400 m, the transition scale becomes larger and is above 10° in western boundary currents. Comparison of climate model results with observations show that the small-scale influence of ocean intrinsic variability is well captured by the high-resolution model but is missing from a comparable model with parameterized ocean-eddy effects. In the deep tropics, ocean dynamics dominates in all cases and all scales. In the subtropical gyres at large scales, air–sea heat fluxes play the biggest role. In the midlatitudes, at large scales >10°, atmosphere-driven air–sea heat fluxes and Ekman heat transport variability are the dominant processes except in the western boundary currents for the 400 m heat content.

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R. Justin Small
,
Frank O. Bryan
,
Stuart P. Bishop
, and
Robert A. Tomas

Abstract

A traditional view is that the ocean outside of the tropics responds passively to atmosphere forcing, which implies that air–sea heat fluxes are mainly driven by atmosphere variability. This paper tests this viewpoint using state-of-the-art air–sea turbulent heat flux observational analyses and a climate model run at different resolutions. It is found that in midlatitude ocean frontal zones the variability of air–sea heat fluxes is not predominantly driven by the atmosphere variations but instead is forced by sea surface temperature (SST) variations arising from intrinsic oceanic variability. Meanwhile in most of the tropics and subtropics wind is the dominant driver of heat flux variability, and atmosphere humidity is mainly important in higher latitudes. The predominance of ocean forcing of heat fluxes found in frontal regions occurs on scales of around 700 km or less. Spatially smoothing the data to larger scales results in the traditional atmosphere-driving case, while filtering to retain only small scales of 5° or less leads to ocean forcing of heat fluxes over most of the globe. All observational analyses examined (1° OAFlux; 0.25° J-OFURO3; 0.25° SeaFlux) show this general behavior. A standard resolution (1°) climate model fails to reproduce the midlatitude, small-scale ocean forcing of heat flux: refining the ocean grid to resolve eddies (0.1°) gives a more realistic representation of ocean forcing but the variability of both SST and of heat flux is too high compared to observational analyses.

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