Observations of wave-mean flow interaction in the Pacific Equatorial Undercurrent

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Brady, Esther C.
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Pacific Equatorial Undercurrent
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Ocean currents
Ocean waves
The contribution of tropical instability waves to the momentum and energy balances of the Pacific Equatorial Undercurrent is investigated using velocity and temperature time series from the three-dimensional Equatorial Pacific Ocean Climate Study mooring array at 110°W. Tropical instability waves are an energetic band of variability typically with periods between 14 and 36 days which are thought to be generated by instability of the equatorial currents. They are frequently observed as meanders of the equatorial front in satellite sea surface temperature maps. Here, they are observed as large oscillations in the meridional velocity records at l10°W with an energy peak at 21 days. Westward phase propagation is observed in this band with a phase speed of -0.9 (±0.3) m s-1 and a wavelength of 1660 km. Upward phase propagation is observed which is consistent with downward energy propagation. The observed propagation characteristics are compared with those of the mixed Rossby-gravity wave. The variability in this band produces large northward fluxes of eastward momentum and southward fluxes of temperature which affect the dynamics of the mean Undercurrent through the Reynolds stress divergence, and the Eliassen-Palm flux divergence. The waves produce a northward flux of eastward momentum, uv, which is largest at the northern mooring in the upper part of the array. The meridional divergence of eastward momentum, -δ(uv)/δy, decelerates the Undercurrent core down to 150 m. This implies a coupling between the Undercurrent and the South Equatorial Current with the eastward momentum of the Undercurrent transferred to the westward flowing South Equatorial Current. To estimate the vertical momentum flux divergence, the vertical eddy flux of eastward momentum, uw, is inferred using the eddy temperature equation. The vertical eddy momentum flux is positive and largest at the core of the Undercurrent, implying an acceleration of the eastward flow above the core and a deceleration below. The Eliassen-Palm flux divergence is small above the core of the Undercurrent at 75 m, but below the core, is sufficient to balance the deeply penetrating eastward pressure gradient force. The instability waves are important to the energetics of the mean Undercurrent. An exchange of kinetic energy from the mean Undercurrent to the waves through shear production is estimated. A local exchange is suggested since the rate at which the mean Undercurrent loses kinetic energy through instability is comparable to the rate at which the waves gain energy through shear production. The conversion from mean to eddy potential energy is an order of magnitude smaller with the waves gaining potential energy through conversion of mean available potential energy. The observations of upward phase propagation and downward Eliassen-Palm flux suggest that the waves propagate energy downward into the deep ocean. The energetics and momentum balance of the mean Undercurrent is investigated further by analyzing the downstream change in the Bernoulli function on the equator along isentropes or potential density surfaces using mean hydrographic sections at 150°W and 110°W. A downstream decrease in the Bernoulli function is observed which is due to a decrease in the Acceleration Potential since the mean kinetic energy of the Undercurrent changes little from 150°W to 110°W. The lateral divergence of eddy momentum fluxes calculated on isotherms is sufficient to balance the observed decrease in the Acceleration Potential. The downstream decrease in the Acceleration potential has further implications for the mean energetics since this "downhill" flow releases mean available potential energy stored in the east-west sloping thermocline. The rate at which the Undercurrent releases available potential energy, is shown to be comparable to the rate at which the mean flow loses kinetic energy by interaction with the waves, with the waves gaining kinetic energy in the process. Thus, it is hypothesized that in the eastern Pacific this downstream release of available potential energy is ultimately converted into a downstream increase in the kinetic energy of the waves rather than the kinetic energy of the mean flow as occurs in the western Pacific. To maintain an equilibrium, the waves radiate energy into the deep ocean as is suggested by the upward phase propagation and the downward Eliassen-Palm flux.
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 September 1990
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Brady, E. C. (1990). Observations of wave-mean flow interaction in the Pacific Equatorial Undercurrent [Doctoral thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution]. Woods Hole Open Access Server. https://doi.org/10.1575/1912/5457
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