Instability and mixing of zonal jets along an idealized continental shelf break

Alon Stern, Louis Philippe Nadeau, David Holland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The interaction between an Antarctic Circumpolar Current-like channel flow and a continental shelf break is considered using eddy-permitting simulations of a quasigeostrophic and a primitive equation model. The experimental setup is motivated by the continental shelf of the West Antarctic Peninsula. Numerical experiments are performed to study how the width and slope of an idealized continental shelf topography affect the characteristics of the flow. The main focus is on the regime where the shelfbreak width is slightly greater than the eddy scale. In this regime, a strong baroclinic jet develops on the shelf break because of the locally stabilizing effect of the topographic slope. The velocity of this jet is set at first order by the gradient of the background barotropic geostrophic contours, which is dominated by the slope of the topography. At statistical equilibrium, an aperiodic cycle is observed. Initially, over a long stable period, an upper-layer jet develops over the shelf break. Once the vertical shear reaches the critical condition for baroclinic instability, the jet becomes unstable and drifts away from the shelf break. The cross-shelf mixing is intrinsically linked with the jet drifting, as most of the meridional flux occurs during this instability period. Investigation of the zonal momentum budget reveals that a strong Reynolds stress divergence inversion across the jet is associated with a drifting event, accelerating one flank of the jet and decelerating the other. The hypothesis that jet drifting may be due to one flank of the jet being more baroclinically unstable than the other is tested using topographic profiles with variable curvatures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2315-2338
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Physical Oceanography
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2015


  • Atm/Ocean Structure/Phenomena
  • Circulation/Dynamics
  • Geographic location/entity
  • Instability
  • Mixing
  • Models and modeling
  • Ocean dynamics
  • Potential vorticity
  • Quasigeostrophic models
  • Southern Ocean

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography


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