National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2016

Wind, waves, and fronts: Frictional effects in a generalized Ekman model

Wenegrat, J.O., and M.J. McPhaden

J. Phys. Oceanogr., 46(2), 371–394, doi: 10.1175/JPO-D-15-0162.1 (2016)

Ocean currents in the surface boundary layer are sensitive to a variety of parameters not included in classic Ekman theory, including the vertical structure of eddy viscosity, finite boundary layer depth, baroclinic pressure gradients, and surface waves. These parameters can modify the horizontal and vertical flow in the near-surface ocean, making them of first-order significance to a wide range of phenomena of broad practical and scientific import. In this work, an approximate Green’s function solution is found for a model of the frictional ocean surface boundary layer, termed the generalized Ekman (or turbulent thermal wind) balance. The solution admits consideration of general, more physically realistic forms of parameters than previously possible, offering improved physical insight into the underlying dynamics. Closed form solutions are given for the wind-driven flow in the presence of Coriolis–Stokes shear, a result of the surface wave field, and thermal wind shear, arising from a baroclinic pressure gradient, revealing the common underlying physical mechanisms through which they modify currents in the ocean boundary layer. These dynamics are further illustrated by a case study of an idealized two-dimensional front. The solutions, and estimates of the global distribution of the relative influence of surface waves and baroclinic pressure gradients on near-surface ocean currents, emphasize the broad importance of considering ocean sources of shear and physically realistic parameters in the Ekman problem.

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