Research Article

Enhanced Turbulence and Energy Dissipation at Ocean Fronts

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Science  10 Mar 2011:
DOI: 10.1126/science.1201515


The ocean surface boundary layer mediates air-sea exchange. In the classical paradigm and in current climate models, its turbulence is driven by atmospheric forcing. Observations at a 1-km-wide front within the Kuroshio found the rate of energy dissipation within the boundary layer to be enhanced by 10 to 20 times, suggesting that the front not the atmospheric forcing supplied the energy for the turbulence. The data quantitatively support the hypothesis that winds aligned with the frontal velocity catalyzed a release of energy from the front to the turbulence. The resulting boundary layer is stratified, in contrast to the classically well-mixed layer. These effects will be strongest at the intense fronts found in the Kuroshio, Gulf Stream, and Antarctic Circumpolar Current, key players in the climate system.