Lateral Mixing in the Pycnocline by Baroclinic Mixed Layer Eddies
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Using a process study model, the effect of mixed layer submesoscale instabilities on the lateral mixing of passive tracers in the pycnocline is explored. Mixed layer eddies that are generated from the baroclinic instability of a front within the mixed layer are found to penetrate into the pycnocline leading to an eddying flow field that acts to mix properties laterally along isopycnal surfaces. The mixing of passive tracers released on such isopycnal surfaces is quantified by estimating the variance of the tracer distribution over time. The evolution of the tracer variance reveals that the flow undergoes three different turbulent regimes. The first regime, lasting about 3-4 days (about 5 inertial periods) exhibits near-diffusive behavior; dispersion of the tracer grows nearly linearly with time. In the second regime, which lasts for about 10 days (about 14 inertial periods), tracer dispersion exhibits exponential growth because of the integrated action of high strain rates created by the instabilities. In the third regime, tracer dispersion follows Richardson’s power law. The Nakamura effective diffusivity is used to study the role of individual dynamical filaments in lateral mixing. The filaments, which carry a high concentration of tracer, are characterized by the coincidence of large horizontal strain rate with large vertical vorticity. Within filaments, tracer is sheared without being dispersed, and consequently the effective diffusivity is small in filaments. While the filament centers act as barriers to transport, eddy fluxes are enhanced at the filament edges where gradients are large.