One of the most important forthcoming synoptic datasets for ocean circulation studies will he the sea-surface height data provided by the TOPEX /POSEIDON satellite. The TOPEX/POSEIDON project is in the planning stage and must still decide upon the particular characteristics of the satellite track. The repeat period will be between 10 and 20 days for a variety of technical and strategic reasons. These choices win give a global coverage with spatial resolution (east-west or north-south separation of crossover points) in midlatitudes of roughly 2.8° of latitude and longitude for a 10-day repeat orbit and 1.4° of latitude and longitude for a 20-day repeat orbit. Thus, the crucial question we address in the present study is: what is the effect of changing space or time resolution or both upon the success of a numerical model in reconstructing a four-dimensional picture a the ocean circulation through the assimilation of altimetric data?
To answer this question we carry out a series of numerical experiments with a three-layer, eddy-resolving quasi-geostrophic model of the ocean circulation in which we systematically vary the space and time resolutions of the data available for assimilation experiments. The experiments are carded out under the “best possible” conditions for the assimilation to be successful, namely: (i) the model is “perfect"; (ii) the data have no errors; and (iii) the data are dynamically compatible with the model since they are simulated by the model itself in a control run.
We reach the following conclusions. In principle, assimilation of altimetric data with a simple relaxation (“nudging”) technique can be very successful in driving the assimilation model to the control run even in the deep layers for which no data are supplied. This is achieved with a “nearly perfect” space-time resolution surface height dataset in which data are supplied at every model grid point and every 0.5 day in time. The residual errors after one year of continuous assimilation amount to less than 10% in all three layers. When the altimetric data are provided along tracks with a given realistic separation (but complete time information), the decrease in space resolution degrades the model estimates somewhat. With data provided at every time step but a track separation of 280 km and making use of the best choice of assimilation procedures we have found that the residual rms errors amount to about 45% after six years of continuous assimilation. While the patterns of the circulation are somewhat different from those of the control run and the flow intensifies are slightly underestimated, the correspondences between the assimilation run and the control run are considerable. When the altimetric data are provided with a realistic time sampling period (but with space resolution at every grid point), the intensity of the flow fields also are somewhat underestimated, especially in the deep layer. The assimilation procedure is again capable, however, of reproducing quite faithfully the flow patterns throughout the water column.
When the altimetric data are assimilated along the actual tracks, that is only at the track grid-points and at the actual time of arrival, the best assimilation results achieved with TOPEX repeat periods of 10 or 20 days are about equally effective for improving the model estimates of the circulation. The residual errors after 6 years of continuous time assimilation are from 60% to 70% for both 10- and 20-day repeats. Apparently, the tradeoff between space and time resolutions just about compensate for each other. The results show that under the best of conditions (small errors, good model) a single satellite makes only minor improvements in the model estimates, and it cannot reconstruct the details of the mesoscale eddy field.
It should be kept in mind that these results depend on the space and time scales of motion in the region to be studied. Moreover, the conclusions reached here depend, to an unknown extent, on the assimilation technique used. Better techniques might allow us to better differentiate between the different space-time choices for TOPEX and to reproduce the actual oceanic circulation more faithfully.