Direct observation of subtropical mode water circulation in the western North Atlantic Ocean Academic Article uri icon


  • Eighteen Degree Water (EDW) is the dominant subtropical mode water of the North Atlantic subtropical gyre and is hypothesized as an interannual reservoir of anomalous heat, nutrients and CO2. Although isolated beneath the stratified upper-ocean at the end of each winter, EDW may re-emerge in subsequent years to influence mixed layer properties and consequently air-sea interaction and primary productivity. Here we report on recent quasi-Lagrangian measurements of EDW circulation and stratification in the western subtropical gyre using an array of acoustically-tracked, isotherm-following, bobbing profiling floats programmed to track and intensively sample the vertically homogenized EDW layer and directly measure velocity on the 18.5 degrees C isothermal surface. The majority of the CLIVAR Mode Water Dynamics Experiment (CLIMODE) bobbers drifted within the subtropical gyre for 2.5-3.5 years, many exhibiting complex looping patterns indicative of an energetic eddy field. Bobber-derived Lagrangian integral time and length scales (3 days, 68 km) associated with motion on 18.5 degrees C were consistent with previous measurements in the Gulf Stream extension region and fall between previous estimates at the ocean surface and thermocline depth. Several bobbers provided evidence of long-lived submesoscale coherent vortices associated with substantial EDW thickness. While the relative importance of such vortices remains to be determined, our observations indicate that these features can have a profound effect on EDW distribution. EDW thickness (defined using a vertical temperature gradient criterion) exhibits seasonal changes in opposition to a layer bounded by the 17 degrees C and 19 degrees C isotherms. In particular, EDW thickness is generally greatest in winter (as a result of buoyancy-forced convection), while the 17 degrees-19 degrees C layer is thickest in summer consistent with seasonal Ekman pumping. Contrary to previous hypotheses, the bobber data suggest that a substantial fraction of subducted EDW is isolated from the atmosphere for periods of less than 24 months. Seasonal-to-biennial re-emergence (principally within the recirculation region south of the Gulf Stream) appears to be a common scenario which should be considered when assessing the climatic and biogeochemical consequences of EDW. (c) 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

publication date

  • July 2013