Vertical fluxes conditioned on vorticity and strain reveal submesoscale ventilation

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Dhruv Balwada , Qiyu Xiao, Shafer Smith, Ryan Abernathey , Alison Gray


It has been hypothesized that submesoscale flows play an important role in the vertical transport of climatically important tracers, due to their strong associated vertical velocities. However, the multi-scale, non-linear and Lagrangian nature of transport makes it challenging to attribute proportions of the tracer fluxes to certain processes, scales, regions or features.
Here we show that criteria based on the surface vorticity and strain joint probability distribution function (JPDF) effectively decomposes the surface velocity field into distinguishable flow regions, which roughly correspond to flow features like fronts and eddies.
The JPDF has a distinct shape, and approximately parses the flow into different scales, as stronger velocity gradients are usually associated with smaller scales.
Conditioning the vertical tracer transport on the vorticity-strain JPDF can therefore help to attribute the transport to different types of flows and scales.
Applied to a set of idealized Antarctic Circumpolar Current simulations that vary only in horizontal resolution, this diagnostic approach demonstrates that small-scale strain dominated regions that are generally associated with submesoscale fronts, despite their minuscule spatial footprint, play an outsized role in exchanging tracers across the mixed layer base, and are an important contributor to the large-scale tracer budgets. Resolving these flows not only adds extra flux at the small-scales, but also enhances the flux due the larger scales.



Oceanography, Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology


ventilation, tracers, vertical transport, fronts, vertical velocities


Published: 2021-01-24 10:28

Last Updated: 2021-04-14 15:38

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CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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Conflict of interest statement:

Data Availability (Reason not available):
Data availability has been noted in the acknowledgements section of the paper.

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