Interpretation of the propagation of surface altimetric observations in terms of planetary waves and geostrophic turbulence

Ross Tulloch, John Marshall, K. Shafer Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The interpretation of surface altimetric signals in terms of Rossby waves is revisited. Rather than make the long-wave approximation, the horizontal scale of the waves is adjusted to optimally fit the phase speed predicted by linear theory to that observed by altimetry, assuming a first baroclinic mode vertical structure. It is found that in the tropical band the observations can be fit if the wavelength of the waves is assumed to be large, of order 600 km or so. However poleward of ± 30°, it is more difficult to fit linear theory to the observations, and the fit is less good than at lower latitudes: the required scale of the waves must be reduced to about 100 km, somewhat larger than the local deformation wavelength. It is argued that these results can be interpreted in terms of Rossby wave, baroclinic instability, and turbulence theory. At low latitudes there is an overlap between geostrophic turbulence and Rossby wave timescales, and so, an upscale energy transfer from baroclinic instability at the deformation scale produces waves. At high latitudes there is no such overlap and waves are not produced by upscale energy transfer. These ideas are tested by using surface drifter data to infer turbulent velocities and timescales that are compared to those of linear Rossby waves. A transition from a field dominated by waves to one dominated by turbulence occurs at about ± 30°, broadly consistent with the transition that is required to fit linear theory to altimetric observations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberC02005
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Oceans
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 8 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Oceanography


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