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Luna Hiron, David S. Nolan, and Lynn K. Shay


The Loop Current (LC) system has long been assumed to be close to geostrophic balance despite its strong flow and the development of large meanders and strong frontal eddies during unstable phases. The region between the LC meanders and its frontal eddies was shown to have high Rossby numbers indicating nonlinearity; however, the effect of the nonlinear term on the flow has not been studied so far. In this study, the ageostrophy of the LC meanders is assessed using a high-resolution numerical model and geostrophic velocities from altimetry. A formula to compute the radius of curvature of the flow from the velocity field is also presented. The results indicate that during strong meandering, especially before and during LC shedding and in the presence of frontal eddies, the centrifugal force becomes as important as the Coriolis force and the pressure gradient force: LC meanders are in gradient-wind balance. The centrifugal force modulates the balance and modifies the flow speed, resulting in a subgeostrophic flow in the LC meander trough around the LC frontal eddies and supergeostrophic flow in the LC meander crest. The same pattern is found when correcting the geostrophic velocities from altimetry to account for the centrifugal force. The ageostrophic percentage in the cyclonic and anticyclonic meanders is 47% ± 1% and 78% ± 8% in the model and 31% ± 3% and 78% ± 29% in the altimetry dataset, respectively. Thus, the ageostrophic velocity is an important component of the LC flow and cannot be neglected when studying the LC system.

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