The current feedback on stress modifies the Ekman buoyancy flux at fronts

Wenegrat, J. (2023), The current feedback on stress modifies the Ekman buoyancy flux at fronts, Journal of Phys. Oceanogr, 53 (12), 2737-2749, doi:10.1175/JPO-D-23-0005.1.

Ocean surface currents introduce variations into the surface wind stress that can change the component of the stress aligned with the thermal wind shear at fronts. This modifies the Ekman buoyancy flux, such that the current feedback on the stress tends to generate an effective flux of buoyancy and potential vorticity to the mixed layer. Scaling arguments and idealized simulations resolving both mesoscale and submesoscale turbulence suggest that this pathway for air–sea interaction can be important both locally at individual submesoscale fronts with strong surface currents—where it can introduce equivalent advective heat fluxes exceeding several hundred watts per square meter—and in the spatial mean where it reduces the integrated Ekman buoyancy flux by approximately 50%. The accompanying source of surface potential vorticity injection suggests that at some fronts the current feedback modification of the Ekman buoyancy flux may be significant in terms of both submesoscale dynamics and boundary layer energetics, with an implied modification of symmetric instability growth rates and dissipation that scales similarly to the energy lost through the negative wind work generated by the current feedback. This provides an example of how the shift of dynamical regimes into the submesoscale may promote the importance of air–sea interaction mechanisms that differ from those most active at larger scale.

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Physical Oceanography Program (POP)