National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2018

A metric for surface heat flux effect on horizontal sea surface temperature gradients

Tozuka, T., S. Ohishi, and M.F. Cronin

Climate Dynam., 51(1–2), 547–561, doi: 10.1007/s00382-017-3940-2, View online (2018)

Understanding what controls horizontal variations in sea surface temperatures (SSTs) is one of the key science questions in climate research. Although various oceanic effects contribute to reinforcement/relaxation of horizontal variations in SSTs, the role of surface heat fluxes is surprisingly complex and can lead to significant biases in coupled models if improperly represented. In particular, the contribution of surface heat fluxes to surface frontogenesis/frontolysis depends not just on their gradients, but also on the distribution of mixed layer depth, which controls the effective heat capacity of the upper ocean. In this study, a new metric, referred to as the surface flux frontogenesis metric, is proposed that quantifies the relative importance of horizontal variations in surface heat fluxes and mixed layer depth. Global maps of this metric reveal that the role of surface heat fluxes in determining the horizontal SST gradient is highly variable geographically and by season. Furthermore, the metric can help explain characteristics of SST fronts in the northwestern Pacific, the Southern Ocean, the eastern equatorial Pacific, and the west coast of North America. Implications of this metric in coupled models will also be discussed.

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