Planetary-geometric constraints on isopycnal slope in the Southern Ocean
Jones, DC and Ito, T and Birner, T and Klocker, A and Munday, D, Planetary-geometric constraints on isopycnal slope in the Southern Ocean, Journal of Physical Oceanography, 45, (12) pp. 2991-3004. ISSN 0022-3670 (2015) [Refereed Article]
On planetary scales, surface wind stress and differential buoyancy forcing act together to produce isopycnal surfaces that are relatively flat in the tropics/subtropics and steep near the poles, where they tend to outcrop. Tilted isopycnals in a rapidly rotating fluid are subject to baroclinic instability. The turbulent, mesoscale eddies generated by this instability have a tendency to homogenize potential vorticity (PV) along density surfaces. In the Southern Ocean (SO), the tilt of isopycnals is largely maintained by competition between the steepening effect of surface forcing and the flattening effect of turbulent, spatially inhomogeneous eddy fluxes of PV. Here quasigeostrophic theory is used to investigate the influence of a planetary–geometric constraint on the equilibrium slope of tilted density/buoyancy surfaces in the SO. If the meridional gradients of relative vorticity and PV are small relative to β, then quasigeostrophic theory predicts ds/dz = β/f0 = cot(ϕ0)/a, or equivalently r ≡ |∂zs/(β/f0)| = 1, where f is the Coriolis parameter, β is the meridional gradient of f, s is the isopycnal slope, ϕ0 is a reference latitude, a is the planetary radius, and r is the depth-averaged criticality parameter. It is found that the strict r = 1 condition holds over specific averaging volumes in a large-scale climatology. A weaker r = O(1) condition for depth-averaged quantities is generally satisfied away from large bathymetric features. The r = O(1) constraint is employed to derive a depth scale to characterize large-scale interior stratification, and an idealized sector model is used to test the sensitivity of this relationship to surface wind forcing. Finally, the possible implications for eddy flux parameterization and for the sensitivity of SO circulation/stratification to changes in forcing are discussed.