Stirring across the Antarctic Circumpolar Current's southern boundary at the prime meridian, Weddell Sea

Ria Oelerich, Karen J. Heywood, Gillian M. Damerell, Marcel du Plessis, Louise C. Biddle, Sebastiaan Swart

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At the southern boundary of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), relatively warm ACC waters encounter the colder waters surrounding Antarctica. Strong density gradients across the southern boundary indicate the presence of a frontal jet and are thought to modulate the southward heat transport across the front. In this study, the southern boundary in the Weddell Sea sector at the prime meridian is surveyed for the first time in high resolution over 2 months during an austral summer with underwater gliders occupying a transect across the front on five occasions. The five transects show that the frontal structure (i.e. hydrography, velocities and lateral density gradients) varies temporally. The results demonstrate significant, transient (a few weeks) variability of the southern boundary and its frontal jet in location, strength and width. A mesoscale cold-core eddy is identified to disrupt the southern boundary’s frontal structure and strengthen lateral density gradients across the front. The front's barrier properties are assessed using mixing length scales and potential vorticity to establish the cross-frontal exchange of properties between the ACC and the Weddell Gyre. The results show that stronger lateral density gradients caused by the mesoscale eddy strengthen the barrier-like properties of the front through reduced mixing length scales and pronounced gradients of potential vorticity. In contrast, the barrier-like properties of the southern boundary are reduced when no mesoscale eddy is influencing the density gradients across the front. Using satellite altimetry, we further demonstrate that the barrier properties over the past decade have strengthened as a result of increased meridional gradients of absolute dynamic topography and increased frontal jet speeds in comparison to previous decades. Our results emphasise that locally and rapidly changing barrier properties of the southern boundary are important to quantify the cross-frontal exchange, which is particularly relevant in regions where the southern boundary is located near the Antarctic shelf break (e.g. in the West Antarctic sector).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1465–1482
Number of pages18
JournalOcean Science
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 18 Oct 2023

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