Submesoscale Frontogenesis

Roy Barkan, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel; University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, United States, Maarten J Molemaker, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, United States, James C McWilliams, University of California in Los Angeles, Los Angeles, United States, Kaushik Srinivasan, University of California Los Angeles, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Los Angeles, CA, United States and Eric A D'Asaro, Applied Physics Lab, Univ of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States
Oceanic surface submesoscale currents are characterized by anisotropic fronts and filaments with widths from 100 m to a few kilometers; an O(1) Rossby number; and large magnitudes of lateral buoyancy and velocity gradients, cyclonic vorticity, and convergence. We derive an asymptotic model of submeoscale frontogenesis - the rate of sharpening of submesoscale gradients - and show that in contrast with 'classical' deformation frontogenesis, the near-surface convergent motions, which are associated with the ageostrophic secondary circulation, determine the gradient sharpening rates. Analytical solutions for the inviscid Lagrangian evolution of the gradient fields in the proposed asymptotic regime are provided, and emphasize the importance of ageostrophic motions in governing frontal evolution. These analytical solutions are further used to derive a scaling relation for the vertical buoyancy fluxes and transport that accompany the gradient sharpening process. Realistic numerical simulations and drifter observations in the northern Gulf of Mexico during winter confirm the applicability of the asymptotic model to strong frontogenesis. Careful analysis of the numerical simulations and field measurements demonstrates that boundary layer turbulence leads to the generation of the surface convergent motions that drive frontogenesis in this region. Because the asymptotic model makes no assumptions about the physical mechanisms that initiate the convergent frontogenetic motions, it is generic for submesoscale frontogenesis of O(1) Rossby number flows.