Effects of the Sea Ice Floe Size Distribution on Polar Ocean Properties and Air-Sea Exchange

Monday, 15 December 2014
Christopher Horvat and Eli Tziperman, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, United States
Recent scientific studies have demonstrated that sub-mesoscale ocean eddies, motions characterized by Rossby and Richardson numbers around 1, are important in determining the vertical density structure of the ocean, particularly in the mixed layer. Instabilities excited at the sub-mesoscale have timescales of days and length scales of less than 10 kilometers, and enhance ocean restratification by slumping lateral density gradients.

In the polar oceans, a unique mechanism exists that may generate motions on these scales. Individual floes of sea ice may create lateral gradients in the ocean surface heat flux and wind stress curl, acting as an insulator and physical barrier between the ocean and the atmospheric processes that destabilize it. The "floe size distribution" describes the fraction of the ocean surface area covered by sea ice floes, as a function of the sea ice floe size, and determines the length scales over which gradients in atmospheric forcing are transmitted to the ocean. It may therefore play a significant role in exciting or inhibiting sub-mesoscale eddies, and consequently in restratification and air-sea exchange. Current GCMs simulate ice cover using grid-scale ice fraction alone, and lack information about the floe size distribution and of ice length scales that may be important in setting the larger-scale statistics of these motions. An important factor in determining the properties of the upper polar oceans might therefore be missing from modern GCMs.

We consider this possibility by examining sub-mesoscale resolving ocean GCM experiments coupled to an energy-balanced atmosphere and idealized model of floes of sea ice. Varying the floe size distribution with a fixed sea ice fraction, we find that the length scales of individual floes and the floe size distribution itself play an important role in setting the steady-state ocean stratification, temperature, and air-sea exchange.