Open-ocean submesoscale motions: A full seasonal cycle of mixed layer instabilities from gliders

Andrew Thompson, Ayah Lazar, Christian Buckingham, Alberto C. Naveira Garabato, Gillian Damerell, Karen Heywood

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The importance of submesoscale instabilities, particularly mixed layer baroclinic instability and symmetric instability, on upper-ocean mixing and energetics is well documented in regions of strong, persistent fronts such as the Kuroshio and the Gulf Stream. Less attention has been devoted to studying submesoscale flows in the open ocean, far from long-term, mean geostrophic fronts, characteristic of a large proportion of the global ocean. This study presents a year-long, submesoscale-resolving time series of near-surface buoyancy gradients, potential vorticity, and instability characteristics, collected by ocean gliders, that provides insight into open-ocean submesoscale dynamics over a full annual cycle. The gliders continuously sampled a 225 km2 region in the subtropical northeast Atlantic, measuring temperature, salinity, and pressure along 292 short (~20 km) hydrographic sections. Glider observations show a seasonal cycle in near-surface stratification. Throughout the fall (September–November), the mixed layer deepens, predominantly through gravitational instability, indicating that surface cooling dominates submesoscale restratification processes. During winter (December–March), mixed layer depths are more variable, and estimates of the balanced Richardson number, which measures the relative importance of lateral and vertical buoyancy gradients, depict conditions favorable to symmetric instability. The importance of mixed layer instabilities on the restratification of the mixed layer, as compared with surface heating and cooling, shows that submesoscale processes can reverse the sign of an equivalent heat flux up to 25% of the time during winter. These results demonstrate that the open-ocean mixed layer hosts various forced and unforced instabilities, which become more prevalent during winter, and emphasize that accurate parameterizations of submesoscale processes are needed throughout the ocean.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1285–1307
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Physical Oceanography
Publication statusPublished - 5 Apr 2016

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