Mesoscale eddy dissipation by a zoo of submesoscale processes at a western boundary


Mesoscale eddies are ubiquitous dynamical features that tend to propagate westward and disappear along ocean western boundaries. Using a multiscale observational study, we assess the extent to which eddies dissipate via a direct cascade of energy at a western boundary. We analyze data from a ship-based microstructure and velocity survey, and an 18-month mooring deployment, to document the dissipation of energy in anticyclonic and cyclonic eddies impinging on the topographic slope east of the Bahamas, in the North Atlantic Ocean. These observations reveal high levels of turbulence where the steep and rough topographic slope modified the intensified northward flow associated with, in particular, anticyclonic eddies. Elevated dissipation was observed both near-bottom and at mid depths (200–800 m). Near-bottom turbulence occurred in the lee of a protruding escarpment, where elevated Froude numbers suggest hydraulic control. Energy was also radiated in the form of upward-propagating internal waves. Elevated dissipation at mid depths occurred in regions of strong vertical shear, where the topographic slope modified the vertical structure of the northward eddy flow. Here, low Richardson numbers and a local change in the isopycnal gradient of potential vorticity (PV) suggest that the elevated dissipation was associated with horizontal shear instability. Elevated mid-depth dissipation was also induced by topographic steering of the flow. This led to large anticyclonic vorticity and negative PV adjacent to the topographic slope, suggesting that centrifugal instability underpinned the local enhancement in dissipation. Our results provide a mechanistic benchmark for the realistic representation of eddy dissipation in ocean models.

J. Geophys. Res.
Eleanor Frajka-Williams
Eleanor Frajka-Williams
Professor of Ocean Dynamics in a Changing Climate

I am a physical oceanographer who uses ocean observations to investigate ocean dynamics and circulation in a changing climate. I have a particular interest in problems spanning scales (from micro- to large-scale) or spheres (biogeosphere, cryosphere, atmosphere), and in methods that leverage traditional observations with new platforms and satellite data.