Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans

North Atlantic surface circulation during the 1990's observed with satellite-tracked drifters


  • David M. Fratantoni


A new compilation of Lagrangian velocity observations describes the state of the North Atlantic surface circulation during the 1990s. Gridded fields of velocity and eddy kinetic energy (EKE) are constructed from trajectories of more than 1500 15-m drogued satellite-tracked surface drifters in service between January 1990 and December 1999. This time period overlaps a coordinated field study of circulation and variability in the North Atlantic completed between 1996–2000 as part of the World Ocean Circulation Experiment. We describe the construction of a self-consistent drifter climatology, present decadal-mean quasi-Eulerian velocity and EKE fields computed on a 1° grid, and compare these results with contemporary satellite measurements. Detailed discussion of the inferred surface circulation is focused on three regions: (1) The Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Current, (2) the Labrador Sea and subpolar gyre, and (3) the Caribbean Sea. The swiftest drifter motions were found in the equatorial region and along the tropical, subtropical, and subpolar western boundaries. The maximum instantaneous speed determined from a single (quality-controlled and filtered) drifter observation was 273 cm s−1 in the Gulf Stream southeast of Cape Cod. The highest EKE value in the North Atlantic (2790 cm2 s−2) was found in the Gulf Stream just downstream of the New England Seamounts. Over most of the Atlantic basin, drifter-derived EKE values were found to be O(100 cm2 s−2) higher than corresponding values derived from satellite altimetry. In the Labrador Sea a region of sharply elevated EKE appears to be geographically related to the localized ejection of drifters (and by extension, mass and kinetic energy) from the energetic West Greenland Current between 60° and 62°N. When compared to drifter measurements made in the late 1970s our results suggest (but do not statistically confirm) an enhancement and slight northward shift of the zonal Gulf Stream extension. Such a shift is consistent in sign with expectations based on observed interdecadal variations in wind stress and subtropical gyre potential energy associated with the North Atlantic Oscillation.