Dynamics of the Antarctic circumpolar current : evidence for topographic effects from altimeter data and numerical model output

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Gille, Sarah T.
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Antarctic Circumpolar Current
Kerguelen Island
Campbell Plateau
Drake Passage
Replaced By
Ocean currents
Eddy flux
Geosat altimeter data and numerical model output are used to examine the circulation and dynamics of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC). The mean sea surface height across the ACC has been reconstructed from height variability measured by the Geosat altimeter, without assuming prior knowledge of the geoid. For this study, an automated technique has been developed to estimate mean sea surface height for each satellite ground track using a meandering Gaussian jet model, and errors have been estimated using Monte Carlo simulation. The results are objectively mapped to produce a picture of the mean Subantarctic and Polar Fronts, which together comprise the major components of the ACC. The locations of the fronts are consistent with in situ observations and indicate that the fronts are substantially steered by bathymetry. The jets have an average Gaussian width of about 44 km in the meridional direction and meander about 75 km to either side of their mean locations. The width of the fronts is proportional to 1/f, indicating that with constant stratification, the width is proportional to the baroclinic. Rossby radius. The average height difference across the Subantarctic Front (SAF) is 0.7 m and across the Polar Front (PF) 0.6 m. The mean widths of the fronts are correlated with the size of the baroclinic Rossby radius. The meandering jet model explains between 40% and 70% of the height variance along the jet axes. Bathymetric constrictions are associated with increased eddy variability, a smaller percentage of which may be explained by the meandering of the ACC fronts, indicating that propagating eddies and rings may be spawned at topographic features. Detailed examination of spatial and temporal variability in the altimeter data indicates a spatial decorrelation scale of 85 km and a temporal e-folding scale of 34 days. The sea surface height variability is objectively mapped using these scales to define autocovariance functions. The resulting maps indicate substantial evidence of mesoscale eddy activity. Over 17-day time intervals, meanders of the PF and SAF appear to elongate, break off as rings, and propagate. Statistical analysis of ACC variability from altimeter data is conducted using empirical orthogonal functions (EOFs ). The first mode EOF describes 16% of the variance in total sea surface height across the ACC; reducing the domain into basin scales does not significantly increase the variance represented by the first EOF, suggesting that the scales of motion are relatively short, and may be determined by local instability mechanisms rather than larger basin scale processes. Likewise, frequency domain EOFs indicate no statistically significant traveling wave modes. The momentum balance of the ACC has been investigated using both output from a high resolution primitive equation model and sea surface height measurements from the Geosat altimeter. In the Semtner-Chervin general circulation model, run with approximately quarter-degree resolution and time varying ECMWF winds, topographic form stress is the dominant process balancing the surface wind forcing. Detailed examination of form stress in the model indicates that it is due to three large topographic obstructions located at Kerguelen Island, Campbell Plateau, and Drake Passage. In order to reduce the effects of standing eddies, the model momentum balance is considered in stream coordinates; vertically integrated through the entire water column, topographic form drag is the dominant balance for wind stress. However, at mid-depth the cross-stream momentum transfer is dominated by horizontal biharmonic friction. In the upper ocean, horizontal friction, mean momentum flux divergence, transient momentum flux divergence, and mean vertical flux divergence all contribute significantly to the momentum balance. Although the relative importance of individual terms in the momentum balance does not vary substantially along streamlines, elevated levels of eddy kinetic energy are associated with the three major topographic features. In contrast, altimeter data show elevated energy levels at many more topographic features of intermediate scales, suggesting that smaller topographic effects are better able to communicate with the surface in the real ocean than in the model. Transient Reynolds stress terms play a small role in the the overall momentum balance; nonetheless, altimeter and model measurements closely agree, and suggest that transient eddies tend to accelerate the mean flow, except in the region between the major fronts which comprise the ACC. Potential vorticity is considered in the model output along Montgomery streamfunction. Even at about 1000 m depth, it varies in response to wind forcing, largely as a result of changes in vertical stratification, indicating that forcing and dissipation do not locally balance in the Southern Ocean. In order to compare model and altimeter potential vorticity estimates, two different proxies for potential vorticity on surface streamlines are considered. Both proxies show very similar results for model and altimeter, suggesting that differences in surface streamlines estimated by the altimeter and the model are not significant in explaining the Southern Ocean flow. The proxies are both roughly conserved along surface height contours but undergo substantial jumps near topographic features. However, they cannot capture stratification changes which may be critically important to the overall potential vorticity balance.
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 1995
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