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Oceanic wave-balanced surface fronts and filaments

  • James C. McWilliams (a1) and Baylor Fox-Kemper (a2)


A geostrophic, hydrostatic, frontal or filamentary flow adjusts conservatively to accommodate a surface gravity wave field with wave-averaged, Stokes-drift vortex and Coriolis forces in an altered balanced state. In this altered state, the wave-balanced perturbations have an opposite cross-front symmetry to the original geostrophic state; e.g. the along-front flow perturbation is odd-symmetric about the frontal centre while the geostrophic flow is even-symmetric. The adjustment tends to make the flow scale closer to the deformation radius, and it induces a cross-front shape displacement in the opposite direction to the overturning effects of wave-aligned down-front and up-front winds. The ageostrophic, non-hydrostatic, adjusted flow may differ from the initial flow substantially, with velocity and buoyancy perturbations that extend over a larger and deeper region than the initial front and Stokes drift. The largest effect occurs for fronts that are wider than the mixed layer deformation radius and that fill about two-thirds of a well-mixed surface layer, with the Stokes drift spanning only the shallowest part of the mixed layer. For even deeper mixed layers, and especially for thinner or absent mixed layers, the wave-balanced adjustments are not as large.


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Journal of Fluid Mechanics
  • ISSN: 0022-1120
  • EISSN: 1469-7645
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