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Published November 2013 | Published
Journal Article Open

Interpreting Energy and Tracer Spectra of Upper-Ocean Turbulence in the Submesoscale Range (1–200 km)


Submesoscale (1–200 km) wavenumber spectra of kinetic and potential energy and tracer variance are obtained from in situ observations in the Gulf Stream region and in the eastern subtropical North Pacific. In the Gulf Stream region, steep kinetic energy spectra at scales between 200 and 20 km are consistent with predictions of interior quasigeostrophic–turbulence theory, both in the mixed layer and in the thermocline. At scales below 20 km, the spectra flatten out, consistent with a growing contribution of internal-wave energy at small scales. In the subtropical North Pacific, the energy spectra are flatter and inconsistent with predictions of interior quasigeostrophic–turbulence theory. The observed spectra and their dependence on depth are also inconsistent with predictions of surface quasigeostrophic–turbulence theory for the observed ocean stratification. It appears that unbalanced motions, most likely internal tides at large scales and the internal-wave continuum at small scales, dominate the energy spectrum throughout the submesoscale range. Spectra of temperature variance along density surfaces, which are not affected by internal tides, are also inconsistent with predictions of geostrophic-turbulence theories. Reasons for this inconsistency could be the injection of energy in the submesoscale range by small-scale baroclinic instabilities or modifications of the spectra by coupling between surface and interior dynamics or by ageostrophic frontal effects.

Additional Information

© 2013 American Meteorological Society. AMS "Open Choice." (Manuscript received 18 March 2013, in final form 13 August 2013) This article is included in the Ocean Turbulence Special Collection. We are thankful for fruitful discussions with Malte Jansen, Joseph H. LaCasce, Ross Tulloch, and Carl Wunsch. We thank Brian K. Arbic, Jay F. Shriver, and James G. Richman for providing us with HYCOM model output. This work was supported by NSF through OCE 1024198 and by ONR through N000140910458.

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August 22, 2023
October 18, 2023