An analysis of mechanisms for submesoscale vertical motion at ocean fronts
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We analyze model simulations of a wind-forced upper ocean front to understand the generation of near-surface submesoscale, 0(1 km), structures with intense vertical motion. The largest vertical velocities are in the downward direction; their maxima are situated at approximately 25 m depth and magnitudes exceed I mm/s or 100 m/day. They are correlated with high rates of lateral strain, large relative vorticity and the loss of geostrophic balance. We examine several mechanisms for the formation of submesoscale structure and vertical velocity in the upper ocean. These include: (i) frontogenesis, (ii) frictional effects at fronts, (iii) mixed layer instabilities, (iv) ageostrophic anticyclonic instability, and (v) nonlinear Ekman effects. We assess the role of these mechanisms in generating vertical motion within the nonlinear, three-dimensionally evolving flow field of the nonhydrostatic model. We find that the strong submesoscale down-welling in the model is explained by nonlinear Ekman pumping and is also consistent with the potential vorticity arguments that analogize down-front winds to buoyancy-forcing. Conditions also support the formation of ageostrophic anticyclonic instabilities, but the contribution of these is difficult to assess because the decomposition of the flow into balanced and unbalanced components via semigeostrophic analysis breaks down at 0(l) Rossby numbers. Mixed layer instabilities do not dominate the structure, but shear and frontogenesis contribute to the relative vorticity and strain fields that generate ageostrophy. (c) 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.