National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2011

Western boundary currents and frontal air-sea interaction: Gulf Stream and Kuroshio Extension

Kelly, K.A., R.J. Small, R.M. Samelson, B. Qiu, T.M. Joyce, Y.-O. Kwon, and M.F. Cronin

J. Climate, 23(21), 5644–5667, doi: 10.1175/2010JCLI3346.1, CLIVAR Western Boundary Current Special Issue (2010)

In the Northern Hemisphere midlatitude western boundary current (WBC) systems there is a complex interaction between dynamics and thermodynamics and between atmosphere and ocean. Their potential contribution to the climate system motivated major parallel field programs in both the North Pacific [Kuroshio Extension System Study (KESS)] and the North Atlantic [Climate Variability and Predictability (CLIVAR) Mode Water Dynamics Experiment (CLIMODE)], and preliminary observations and analyses from these programs highlight that complexity. The Gulf Stream (GS) in the North Atlantic and the Kuroshio Extension (KE) in the North Pacific have broad similarities, as subtropical gyre WBCs, but they also have significant differences, which affect the regional air–sea exchange processes and their larger-scale interactions. The 15-yr satellite altimeter data record, which provides a rich source of information, is combined here with the longer historical record from in situ data to describe and compare the current systems. While many important similarities have been noted on the dynamic and thermodynamic aspects of the time-varying GS and KE, some not-so-subtle differences exist in current variability, mode water properties, and recirculation gyre structure. This paper provides a comprehensive comparison of these two current systems from both dynamical and thermodynamical perspectives with the goal of developing and evaluating hypotheses about the physics underlying the observed differences, and exploring the WBC’s potential to influence midlatitude sea–air interaction. Differences between the GS and KE systems offer opportunities to compare the dominant processes and thereby to advance understanding of their role in the climate system.

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