The formation and fate of internal waves in the South China Sea

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Alford, Matthew H.
Peacock, Thomas
MacKinnon, Jennifer A.
Nash, Jonathan D.
Buijsman, Maarten C.
Centurioni, Luca R.
Chao, Shenn-Yu
Chang, Ming-Huei
Farmer, David M.
Fringer, Oliver B.
Fu, Ke-Hsien
Gallacher, Patrick C.
Graber, Hans C.
Helfrich, Karl R.
Jachec, Steven M.
Jackson, Christopher R.
Klymak, Jody M.
Ko, Dong S.
Jan, Sen
Johnston, T. M. Shaun
Legg, Sonya
Lee, I-Huan
Lien, Ren-Chieh
Mercier, Matthieu J.
Moum, James N.
Musgrave, Ruth C.
Park, Jae-Hun
Pickering, Andrew I.
Pinkel, Robert
Rainville, Luc
Ramp, Steven R.
Rudnick, Daniel L.
Sarkar, Sutanu
Scotti, Alberto
Simmons, Harper L.
St Laurent, Louis C.
Venayagamoorthy, Subhas K.
Wang, Yu-Huai
Wang, Joe
Yang, Yiing-Jang
Paluszkiewicz, Theresa
Tang, Tswen Yung
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Internal gravity waves, the subsurface analogue of the familiar surface gravity waves that break on beaches, are ubiquitous in the ocean. Because of their strong vertical and horizontal currents, and the turbulent mixing caused by their breaking, they impact a panoply of ocean processes, such as the supply of nutrients for photosynthesis1, sediment and pollutant transport2 and acoustic transmission3; they also pose hazards for manmade structures in the ocean4. Generated primarily by the wind and the tides, internal waves can travel thousands of kilometres from their sources before breaking5, posing severe challenges for their observation and their inclusion in numerical climate models, which are sensitive to their effects6-7. Over a decade of studies8-11 have targeted the South China Sea, where the oceans’ most powerful internal waves are generated in the Luzon Strait and steepen dramatically as they propagate west. Confusion has persisted regarding their generation mechanism, variability and energy budget, however, due to the lack of in-situ data from the Luzon Strait, where extreme flow conditions make measurements challenging. Here we employ new observations and numerical models to (i) show that the waves begin as sinusoidal disturbances rather than from sharp hydraulic phenomena, (ii) reveal the existence of >200-m-high breaking internal waves in the generation region that give rise to turbulence levels >10,000 times that in the open ocean, (iii) determine that the Kuroshio western boundary current significantly refracts the internal wave field emanating from the Luzon Strait, and (iv) demonstrate a factor-of-two agreement between modelled and observed energy fluxes that enables the first observationally-supported energy budget of the region. Together, these findings give a cradle-to-grave picture of internal waves on a basin scale, which will support further improvements of their representation in numerical climate predictions.
Author Posting. © The Author(s), 2015. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Nature Publishing Group for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Nature 521 (2015): 65-69, doi:10.1038/nature14399.
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