National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2003

Equatorially trapped Rossby waves in the presence of meridionally sheared baroclinic flow in the Pacific Ocean

Chelton, D.B., M.G. Schlax, J.M. Lyman, and G.C. Johnson

Prog. Oceanogr., 56(2), 323–380, doi: 10.1016/S0079-6611(03)00008-9 (2003)

TOPEX/POSEIDON altimeter data are analyzed for the 8.5-year period November 1992 to May 2001 to investigate the sea surface height (SSH) and geostrophic velocity signatures of quasi-annual equatorially trapped Rossby waves in the Pacific. The latitudinal structures of SSH and both components of geostrophic velocity are found to be asymmetric about the equator across the entire Pacific with larger amplitude north of the equator. The westward phase speeds are estimated by several different methods to be in the range 0.5-0.6 m s. These observed characteristics are inconsistent with the classical theory for first vertical, first meridional mode equatorially trapped Rossby waves, which predicts a phase speed of about 0.9 m s with latitudinally symmetric structures of SSH and zonal velocity and antisymmetric structure of meridional velocity. The observations are even less consistent with the latitudinal structures of SSH and geostrophic velocity components for other modes of the classical theory.

The latitudinal asymmetries deduced here have also been consistently observed in past analyses of subsurface thermal data and altimeter data and have been variously attributed to sampling errors in the observational data, a superposition of multiple meridional Rossby wave modes, asymmetric forcing by the wind, and forcing by cross-equatorial southerly winds in the eastern Pacific. We propose a different mechanism to account for the observed asymmetric latitudinal structure of low-frequency equatorial Rossby waves. From the free-wave solutions of a simple 1.5-layer model, it is shown that meridional shears in the mean equatorial current system significantly alter the potential vorticity gradient in the central and eastern tropical Pacific. The observed asymmetric structures of sea surface height and geostrophic velocity components are found to be a natural consequence of the shear modification of the potential vorticity gradient. The mean currents also reduce the predicted westward phase speed of first meridional mode Rossby waves, improving consistency with the observations.

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