Baroclinic turbulence in the ocean: Analysis with primitive equation and quasigeostrophic simulations

Antoine Venaille, Geoffrey K. Vallis, K. Shafer Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper examines the factors determining the distribution, length scale, magnitude, and structure of mesoscale oceanic eddies in an eddy-resolving primitive equation simulation of the Southern Ocean [Modeling Eddies in the Southern Ocean (MESO)]. In particular, the authors investigate the hypothesis that the primary source of mesoscale eddies is baroclinic instability acting locally on the mean state. Using local mean vertical profiles of shear and stratification from an eddying primitive equation simulation, the forced-dissipated quasigeostrophic equations are integrated in a doubly periodic domain at various locations. The scales, energy levels, and structure of the eddies found in the MESO simulation are compared to those predicted by linear stability analysis, as well as to the eddying structure of the quasigeostrophic simulations. This allows the authors to quantitatively estimate the role of local nonlinear effects and cascade phenomena in the generation of the eddy field. There is a modest transfer of energy (an "inverse cascade") to larger scales in the horizontal, with the length scale of the resulting eddies typically comparable to or somewhat larger than the wavelength of the most unstable mode. The eddies are, however, manifestly nonlinear, and in many locations the turbulence is fairly well developed. Coherent structures also ubiquitously emerge during the nonlinear evolution of the eddy field. There is a near-universal tendency toward the production of grave vertical scales, with the barotropic and first baroclinic modes dominating almost everywhere, but there is a degree of surface intensification that is not captured by these modes. Although the results from the local quasigeostrophic model compare well with those of the primitive equation model in many locations, some profiles do not equilibrate in the quasigeostrophic model. In many cases, bottom friction plays an important quantitative role in determining the final scale and magnitude of eddies in the quasigeostrophic simulations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1605-1623
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Physical Oceanography
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2011


  • Baroclinic flows
  • Eddies
  • Southern Ocean
  • Turbulence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography


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