Dissipation of mesoscale eddies at a western boundary via a direct energy cascade


The fate of mesoscale eddy kinetic energy represents a large source of uncertainty in the global ocean energy budget. Satellite altimetry suggests that mesoscale eddies vanish at ocean western boundaries. However, the fate of the eddies’ kinetic energy remains poorly known. Here we show that the generation of small-scale turbulence as eddy flow impinges on the steep and corrugated slope of an ocean western boundary plays a dominant role in the regional decay of mesoscale eddy kinetic energy. We compare altimetry-based estimates of mesoscale eddy kinetic energy decline with measurements of turbulent dissipation. Mesoscale eddies are found to decay at a rate of 0.016 ± 0.012 GW and 0.023 ± 0.017 GW for anticyclonic and cyclonic eddies, respectively, similar to the observed turbulent dissipation rate of 0.020 ± 0.011 GW. This demonstrates that a major direct transfer of mesoscale eddy kinetic energy to small, dissipative scales can be effectively triggered by the eddies’ interaction with the western boundary topography.

Scientific Reports
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.