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Kinetic Energy Transfers between Mesoscale and Submesoscale Motions in the Open Ocean’s Upper Layers

Naveira Garabato, Alberto C. and Yu, Xiaolong and Callies, Jörn and Barkan, Roy and Polzin, Kurt L. and Frajka-Williams, Eleanor E. and Buckingham, Christian E. and Griffies, Stephen M. (2022) Kinetic Energy Transfers between Mesoscale and Submesoscale Motions in the Open Ocean’s Upper Layers. Journal of Physical Oceanography, 52 (1). pp. 75-97. ISSN 0022-3670. doi:10.1175/jpo-d-21-0099.1.

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Mesoscale eddies contain the bulk of the ocean’s kinetic energy (KE), but fundamental questions remain on the cross-scale KE transfers linking eddy generation and dissipation. The role of submesoscale flows represents the key point of discussion, with contrasting views of submesoscales as either a source or a sink of mesoscale KE. Here, the first observational assessment of the annual cycle of the KE transfer between mesoscale and submesoscale motions is performed in the upper layers of a typical open-ocean region. Although these diagnostics have marginal statistical significance and should be regarded cautiously, they are physically plausible and can provide a valuable benchmark for model evaluation. The cross-scale KE transfer exhibits two distinct stages, whereby submesoscales energize mesoscales in winter and drain mesoscales in spring. Despite this seasonal reversal, an inverse KE cascade operates throughout the year across much of the mesoscale range. Our results are not incompatible with recent modeling investigations that place the headwaters of the inverse KE cascade at the submesoscale, and that rationalize the seasonality of mesoscale KE as an inverse cascade-mediated response to the generation of submesoscales in winter. However, our findings may challenge those investigations by suggesting that, in spring, a downscale KE transfer could dampen the inverse KE cascade. An exploratory appraisal of the dynamics governing mesoscale–submesoscale KE exchanges suggests that the upscale KE transfer in winter is underpinned by mixed layer baroclinic instabilities, and that the downscale KE transfer in spring is associated with frontogenesis. Current submesoscale-permitting ocean models may substantially understate this downscale KE transfer, due to the models’ muted representation of frontogenesis.

Item Type:Article
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription
Yu, Xiaolong0000-0001-7828-8161
Callies, Jörn0000-0002-6815-1230
Buckingham, Christian E.0000-0001-9355-9038
Griffies, Stephen M.0000-0002-3711-236X
Additional Information:© 2022 American Meteorological Society. (Manuscript received 6 May 2021, in final form 21 September 2021) The OSMOSIS experiment was funded by the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) through Grants NE/1019999/1 and NE/101993X/1. ACNG acknowledges the support of the Royal Society and the Wolfson Foundation, and XY that of a China Scholarship Council PhD studentship. We are grateful to the engineers, scientists, captain, and crew of the RRS Discovery, RRS James Cook, and R/V Celtic Explorer, who participated in the deployment and recovery of the moorings and gliders. All data are archived at the British Oceanographic Data Centre. We thank Zachary Erickson and Andrew Thompson for providing us with the LLC4320 model output, and Baylor Fox-Kemper, Hemant Khatri and three anonymous reviewers for insightful feedback. Data availability statement. All OSMOSIS mooring and glider data are freely available, are stored in an accessible data format, contain metadata, and can be obtained from the British Oceanographic Data Centre ( The LLC4320 simulation data can be directly accessed from the ECCO Data Portal (
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)NE/1019999/1
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)NE/101993X/1
Wolfson FoundationUNSPECIFIED
China Scholarship CouncilUNSPECIFIED
Subject Keywords:Ageostrophic circulations; Dynamics; Eddies; Energy transport; Frontogenesis/frontolysis; Instability; Mesoscale processes; Nonlinear dynamics; Ocean circulation; Ocean dynamics; Small scale processes; Turbulence
Issue or Number:1
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20220721-7971000
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Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:115717
Deposited By: George Porter
Deposited On:22 Jul 2022 17:54
Last Modified:22 Jul 2022 17:54

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