Surface circulation in the eastern North Atlantic, from drifters and altimetry

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Abstract

[1] A description of the near-surface circulation and its properties is the result of the analysis of a drifting buoy data set in the eastern North Atlantic between the Iberian Peninsula, the Azores, and the Canary Islands. World Ocean Circulation Experiment–Tropical Ocean–Global Atmosphere experiment drifters equipped with holey sock drogues centered at 15 m depth collected a total of 14.4 years of data. The drifters sampled a rather inhomogeneous velocity field with a weak mean flow regime and eddies of different scales. They meandered southward everywhere in the study region, except in the Iberian coastal transition zone north of 41°N where they headed northward. The near-surface mean velocity field obtained from the drifter data set shows all important mean currents, including the poleward Portugal Coastal Countercurrent during the fall, winter, and early spring off western and northern Iberia, the southward Portugal Coastal Current, the slow offshore southward flow of the Portugal Current during the whole year, the southwestward Canary Current, and the eastward Azores Current, which extends to the vicinity of the African coast near the Gulf of Cadiz. Maps of the eddy kinetic energy field were obtained from the drifters and from satellite altimetry. It provides the largest part of the total kinetic energy. The rate of dispersion is estimated from the Lagrangian statistics of the drifting buoys. The dispersion of the drifters in the study region is well modeled by a simple description of eddy diffusion assuming homogeneous turbulence. Ensemble mean diffusivities K and the Langrangian integral length scales and timescales (L and T) were obtained for the zonal and meridional directions. The sea surface temperature measured along the drifter trajectories is used to produce estimates of the eddy diffusivity, which is compared with the diffusivity estimates obtained from the theory of Taylor. The eddy diffusivity is found to be approximately proportional to the eddy kinetic energy. Discrete eddies and meanders were observed using drifters and altimetry in order to map and describe their geographical distribution and characteristics in the eastern North Atlantic.

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