Southern Ocean fronts: Controlled by wind or topography?

Robert M. Graham, Agatha M. de Boer, Karen J. Heywood, Mark R. Chapman, David P. Stevens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Citations (Scopus)
14 Downloads (Pure)


The location of fronts has a direct influence on both the physical and biological processes in the Southern Ocean. Here we explore the relative importance of bottom topography and winds for the location of Southern Ocean fronts, using 100 years of a control and climate change simulation from the high resolution coupled climate model HiGEM. Topography has primary control on the number and intensity of fronts at each longitude. However, there is no strong relationship between the position or spacing of jets and underlying topographic gradients because of the effects of upstream and downstream topography. The Southern Hemisphere Westerlies intensify and shift south by 1.3° in the climate change simulation, but there is no comparable meridional displacement of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current's (ACC) path or the fronts within its boundaries, even over flat topography. Instead, the current contracts meridionally and weakens. North of the ACC, the Subtropical Front (STF) shifts south gradually, even over steep topographic ridges. We suggest the STF reacts more strongly to the wind shift because it is strongly surface intensified. In contrast, fronts within the ACC are more barotropic and are therefore more sensitive to the underlying topography. An assessment of different methods for identifying jets reveals that maxima of gradients in the sea surface height field are the most reliable. Approximating the position of fronts using sea surface temperature gradients is ineffective at high latitudes while using sea surface height contours can give misleading results when studying the temporal variability of front locations.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberC08018
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research
Publication statusPublished - 2012

Cite this