National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2003

Observational evidence for flow between the subtropical and tropical Atlantic: The Atlantic subtropical cells

Zhang, D., M.J. McPhaden, and W.E. Johns

J. Phys. Oceanogr., 33(8), 1783–1797, doi: 10.1175/2408.1 (2003)

This study determines the mean pathways and volume transports in the pycnocline and surface layer for water flowing between the subtropical and tropical Atlantic Ocean, using potential vorticity, salinity, geostrophic flow maps on isopycnal surfaces, and surface drifter velocities. In both hemispheres, subducted salinity maximum waters flow into the Tropics in the pycnocline along both interior and western boundary pathways. The North Atlantic ventilating trajectories are confined to densities between about 23.2 and 26.0 σθ, and only about 2 Sv (Sv ≡ 106 m3 s-1) of water reaches the Tropics through the interior pathway, whereas the western boundary contributes about 3 Sv to the equatorward thermocline flow. Flow on shallower surfaces of this density range originates from the central Atlantic near 40°W between 12° and 16°N whereas flow on the deeper surfaces originates from near 20°W just off the coast of Africa at higher latitudes. The pathways skirt around the potential vorticity barrier located under the intertropical convergence zone and reach their westernmost location at about 10°N. In the South Atlantic, about 10 Sv of thermocline water reaches the equator through the combination of interior (4 Sv) and western boundary (6 Sv) routes in a slightly higher density range than in the North Atlantic. Similar to the North Atlantic, the shallower layers originate in the central part of the basin (along 10°-30°W at 10°-15°S) and the deeper layers originate at higher latitudes from the eastern part of the basin. However, the ventilation pathways are spread over a much wider interior window in the Southern Hemisphere than in the Northern Hemisphere that at 6°S extends from 10°W to the western boundary. The equatorward convergent flows in the thermocline upwell into the surface layer and return to the subtropics through surface poleward divergence. As much as 70% of the tropical Atlantic upwelling into the surface layer is associated with these subtropical circulation cells, with the remainder contributed by the warm return flow of the large-scale thermohaline overturning circulation.

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