Research ArticleOCEANOGRAPHY

Submesoscale-selective compensation of fronts in a salinity-stratified ocean

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Science Advances  28 Feb 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 2, e1701504
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701504


Salinity, rather than temperature, is the leading influence on density in some regions of the world’s upper oceans. In the Bay of Bengal, heavy monsoonal rains and runoff generate strong salinity gradients that define density fronts and stratification in the upper ~50 m. Ship-based observations made in winter reveal that fronts exist over a wide range of length scales, but at O(1)-km scales, horizontal salinity gradients are compensated by temperature to alleviate about half the cross-front density gradient. Using a process study ocean model, we show that scale-selective compensation occurs because of surface cooling. Submesoscale instabilities cause density fronts to slump, enhancing stratification along-front. Specifically for salinity fronts, the surface mixed layer (SML) shoals on the less saline side, correlating sea surface salinity (SSS) with SML depth at O(1)-km scales. When losing heat to the atmosphere, the shallower and less saline SML experiences a larger drop in temperature compared to the adjacent deeper SML on the salty side of the front, thus correlating sea surface temperature (SST) with SSS at the submesoscale. This compensation of submesoscale fronts can diminish their strength and thwart the forward cascade of energy to smaller scales. During winter, salinity fronts that are dynamically submesoscale experience larger temperature drops, appearing in satellite-derived SST as cold filaments. In freshwater-influenced regions, cold filaments can mark surface-trapped layers insulated from deeper nutrient-rich waters, unlike in other regions, where they indicate upwelling of nutrient-rich water and enhanced surface biological productivity.

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