Eddy amplitudes in baroclinic turbulence driven by nonzonal mean flow: Shear dispersion of potential vorticity

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As in the midlatitude atmosphere, midocean eddies are primarily generated by baroclinically unstable mean currents. In contrast to the atmosphere, however, oceanic currents are significantly nonzonal. Even weak nonzonal currents are linearly unstable since β does not suppress growing meridional waves. Theories for the nonlinear equilibration of baroclinic instability, and hence theories for the amplitudes of midocean eddies, must therefore take into account the different dynamics of nonzonal flow. It is shown here that the amplitude of fully developed baroclinic turbulence due to nonzonal shears differs from that due to zonal shears primarily in the nature of the eddy generation. Since β will act to create large-scale zonal jet structures regardless of the generation source, the nature of eddy fluxes of potential vorticity (the source of eddy energy) in the zonal and meridional directions are fundamentally different. The cross-jet mixing has been shown previously to obey a mixing-length scaling, and this corresponds to the generation due to unstable zonal flow. The along-jet mixing, which corresponds to the generation due to the meridional shear, is shown here to be best described by a shear dispersion model. The resulting flux is orders of magnitude higher than in the cross-jet direction, and thus eddy energies driven by baroclinically unstable mean flows with a nonzero meridional component are much larger. This provides an explanation for recently reported results. Moreover, given recent observational and modeling studies showing the ubiquitous presence of zonal jets in the oceans, the results presented here indicate a powerful source of eddy energy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1037-1050
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Physical Oceanography
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography


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