Symmetric instability in the Gulf Stream Academic Article uri icon

abstract

  • Analyses of wintertime surveys of the Gulf Stream (GS) conducted as part of the CLIvar MOde water Dynamic Experiment (CLIMODE) reveal that water with negative potential vorticity (PV) is commonly found within the surface boundary layer (SBL) of the current. The lowest values of PV are found within the North Wall of the GS on the isopycnal layer occupied by Eighteen Degree Water, suggesting that processes within the GS may contribute to the formation of this low-PV water mass. In spite of large heat loss, the generation of negative PV was primarily attributable to cross-front advection of dense water over light by Ekman flow driven by winds with a down-front component. Beneath a critical depth, the SBL was stably stratified yet the PV remained negative due to the strong baroclinicity of the current, suggesting that the flow was symmetrically unstable. A large eddy simulation configured with forcing and flow parameters based on the observations confirms that the observed structure of the SBL is consistent with the dynamics of symmetric instability (SI) forced by wind and surface cooling. The simulation shows that both strong turbulence and vertical gradients in density, momentum, and tracers coexist in the SBL of symmetrically unstable fronts. SI is a shear instability that draws its energy from geostrophic flows. A parameterization for the rate of kinetic energy (KE) extraction by SI applied to the observations suggests that SI could result in a net dissipation of 33 mW m(-2) and 1 mW m(-2) for surveys with strong and weak fronts, respectively. The surveys also showed signs of baroclinic instability (BCI) in the SBL, namely thermally direct vertical circulations that advect biomass and PV. The vertical circulation was inferred using the omega equation and used to estimate the rate of release of available potential energy (APE) by BCI. The rate of APE release was found to be comparable in magnitude to the net dissipation associated with SI. This result points to an energy pathway where the GS’s reservoir of APE is drained by BCI, converted to KE, and then dissipated by SI and its secondary instabilities. Similar dynamics are likely to be found at other strong fronts forced by winds and/or cooling and could play an important role in the energy balance of the ocean circulation. (c) 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

publication date

  • July 2013