Eddy dynamics over continental slopes under retrograde winds: Insights from a model inter-comparison

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Mesoscale eddies are ubiquitous in the ocean and play a key role in exchanges across continental slopes. In this study the properties of wind-driven baroclinic turbulence are investigated using eddy-resolving process simulations, focusing on the case of retrograde winds that arises around the margins of the subtropical gyres. In contrast to a flat-bottomed ocean, over steep slopes eddies develop from baroclinic instabilities are confined to the top few hundred meters. Deeper in the water column baroclinic instability and vertical momentum transfer are suppressed, so wind-input momentum is exported toward the open ocean by eddies before traversing down to the ocean bed. Close to the sloping topography, eddy energy sourced from the upper ocean is converted to potential energy, steepening isopycnals and driving bottom-trapped prograde flows. This process is associated with upgradient lateral buoyancy fluxes and downgradient isopycnal potential vorticity fluxes, and cannot be reproduced via linear stability calculations.

These properties of wind-driven shelf/slope turbulence are contrasted against simulations with flat bathymetry. The key differences described above hinge on the flow close to the steep topographic slope, which may be sensitive to the model’s vertical coordinate system. The simulations are therefore replicated using models that employ geopotential coordinates, terrain-following coordinates, and isopycnal coordinates. Quantitative inter-model discrepancies in the momentum and energy budgets are much more pronounced in the presence of a steep bottom slope. However, the key findings of this study are consistent across the models, suggesting that they are robust and warrant incorporation into parameterizations of eddy transfer across continental slopes.

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