National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2009

Near-surface shear flow in the tropical Pacific cold tongue front

Cronin, M.F., and W.S. Kessler

J. Phys. Oceanogr., 39(5), 1200-1215, doi: 10.1175/2008JPO4064.1 (2009)

Near-surface shear in the Pacific cold tongue front at 2°N, 140°W was measured using a set of five moored current meters between 5 and 25 m for nine months during 2004–05. Mean near-surface currents were strongly westward and only weakly northward (∼3 cm s−1). Mean near-surface shear was primarily westward and, thus, oriented to the left of the southeasterly trades. When the southwestward geostrophic shear was subtracted from the observed shear, the residual ageostrophic currents relative to 25 m were northward and had an Ekman-like spiral, in qualitative agreement with an Ekman model modified for regions with a vertically uniform front. According to this “frontal Ekman” model, the ageostrophic Ekman spiral is forced by the portion of the wind stress that is not balanced by the surface geostrophic shear. Analysis of a composite tropical instability wave (TIW) confirms that ageostrophic shear is minimized when winds blow along the front, and strengthens when winds blow oblique to the front. Furthermore, the magnitude of the near-surface shear, both in the TIW and diurnal composites, was sensitive to near-surface stratification and mixing. A diurnal jet was observed that was on average 12 cm s−1 stronger at 5 m than at 25 m, even though daytime stratification was weak. The resulting Richardson number indicates that turbulent viscosity is larger at night than daytime and decreases with depth. A “generalized Ekman” model is also developed that assumes that viscosity becomes zero below a defined frictional layer. The generalized model reproduces many of the features of the observed mean shear and is valid both in frontal regions and at the equator.

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