Stirring of Interior Potential Vorticity Gradients as a Formation Mechanism for Large Subsurface-Intensified Eddies in the Beaufort Gyre

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The Beaufort Gyre (BG) is hypothesized to be partially equilibrated by those mesoscale eddies that form via baroclinic instabilities of its currents. However, our understanding of the eddy field’s dependence on the mean BG currents and the role of sea ice remains incomplete. This theoretical study explores the scales and vertical structures of eddies forming specifically due to baroclinic instabilities of interior BG flows. An idealized quasigeostrophic model is used to show that flows driven only by the Ekman pumping contain no interior potential vorticity (PV) gradients and generate weak and large eddies, O(200)km in size, with predominantly barotropic and first baroclinic mode energy. However, flows containing realistic interior PV gradients in the Pacific halocline layer generate significantly smaller eddies of about 50 km in size, with a distinct second baroclinic mode structure and a subsurface kinetic energy maximum. The dramatic change in eddy characteristics is shown to be caused by the stirring of interior PV gradients by large-scale barotropic eddies. The sea ice–ocean drag is identified as the dominant eddy dissipation mechanism, leading to realistic subsurface maxima of eddy kinetic energy for drag coefficients higher than about 2 × 10−3. A scaling law is developed for the eddy potential enstrophy, demonstrating that it is directly proportional to the interior PV gradient and the square root of the barotropic eddy kinetic energy. This study proposes a possible formation mechanism of large BG eddies and points to the importance of accurate representation of the interior PV gradients and eddy dissipation by ice–ocean drag in BG simulations and theory.

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Last updated on 12/05/2022