Mode Water Formation via Cabbeling and Submesoscale Lateral Mixing at a Strained Thermohaline Front

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 2:10 PM
Leif N Thomas, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, United States and Callum J. Shakespeare, University of Cambridge, DAMPT, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Mode waters play an important role in interannual climate variability through the temporary storage of heat and carbon in the ocean. The mechanisms explaining their formation are not well understood but appear to be shaped by the dynamics of the ocean fronts that mark their poleward extent. We explore a mode water formation mechanism that has a clear connection to fronts and involves cabbeling. Cabbeling refers to the process by which two water masses of equal density but different temperature and salinity are combined to create a new, denser water mass, as a result of nonlinearities in the equation of state for seawater. The work is motivated in part by recent observations of an extremely sharp, density-compensated front at the north wall of the Gulf Stream, the boundary between the subtropical and subpolar gyres. Here, the inter-gyre salinity/temperature difference is compressed into a span of a few kilometers, making the flow susceptible to cabbeling. The sharpness of the front is caused by frontogenetic strain, which is presumably balanced by submesoscale lateral mixing processes. We study this balance with a simple analytical model of a thermohaline front forced by uniform strain and derive a scaling for the amount of water mass transformation resulting from the ensuing cabbeling. The theory suggests that this mechanism could be responsible for persistent, hence significant, mode water formation. As such, it represents a submesoscale process that impacts the ocean on basin scales that should be resolved or parameterized in realistic numerical simulations.