The dynamics of mean circulation on the continental shelf
Shaw, Ping-Tung Peter
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Mean long-isobath drift of the order 5 cm/sec has been observed on several continental shelves, e.g. in the Middle Atlantic Bight and in the Weddell Sea. A theoretical model is developed to explore the driving mechanism of this mean circulation. In the model, the velocity field is decomposed into a depth-independent bottom geostrophic component and a thermohaline component relative to the bottom. The latter can be calculated from the density field, and the former is described by a parabolic equation which expresses the tendency-to balance vorticity between bottom stress curl and vortex stretching. The near-bottom flow field is studied both analytically and numerically under forcing by wind, deep ocean flow, and long-isobath density differences. Model solutions are derived for circulations over a shelf/slope topography driven by wind stress, wind stress curl, and deep ocean currents. The resulting flow patterns show strong dependence on the topography. Over the continental slope, large bottom depth variation suppresses the flow driven by local forcing and insulates the slope region from circulations on the shelf and in the deep-ocean. Geochemical observations on the continental shelf and slope support the argument that the flow on the upper slope below the thermocline is weak. Under the condition of a vertically homogeneous layer below the thermocline, near-bottom density advection is mainly caused by the bottom geostrophic velocity field. Using the parabolic vorticity equation together with a density equation, circulations driven by coastal buoyancy flux and surface cooling are investigated. In the mid-shelf region, away from the coast and the shelf break, the density field is governed by Burgers' equation, which shows longshore self-advection of density perturbations and the formation of front with strong density gradient in the longshore direction. A dense water blob moves in the direction of Kelvin wave propagation. The direction is reversed for the movement of a light water blob. In the near-shore region, the light river water bottom is also self-advected in the direction of Kelvin wave propagation. For a heavy density anomaly at the coast, the initial movement is offshore, and the accumulation of dense water in the mid-shelf region leads to long-isobath propagation of density perturbations, similar to the case of a dense water blob. This theory sheds light on the bottom water movements in the Adriatic Sea, the Antarctic Continent, and the Middle Atlantic Bight. The model solutions are applied to the flow on the western North Atlantic shelf. Southwestward flow is produced near the coast by the self-advection of river water in winter and spring. The southwestward long-isobath propagation of thermal fronts caused by winter cooling contributes significantly to the mean circulation over the mid-shelf. It is suggested that density-driven current is an important component of the near-bottom mean circulation in the Middle Atlantic Bight in spring and summer.
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution February 1982
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