Variability of the shelf break jet in the Middle Atlantic Bight: Internally or externally forced?

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Abstract

[1] Velocity records from two bottom-mounted acoustic Doppler current profilers, deployed at the shelf break south of New England are used to characterize the mesoscale variability of the shelf break frontal jet in the Middle Atlantic Bight. While on average the jet is equatorward, energetic current fluctuations dominate the 18-month record at a period near 13 days. The fluctuations are characterized by a deceleration in the equatorward flow over the full water column and are strong enough to reverse the jet near the bottom. The origin of the observed variability is explored with the help of local wind records, concurrent velocity measurements from three tall current meter moorings deployed over the continental slope, and Gulf Stream frontal position information. While we are unable to attribute definitively the observed variability to a single forcing mechanism, we are able to discount several of the traditional possibilities. These include local effects, such as wind driving and tidal rectification, as well as offshore forcing due to Gulf Stream rings, topographic Rossby waves, and the meandering of the Gulf Stream. It is most probable that the fluctuations are caused by baroclinic instability of the shelf break jet. However, we are not able to determine this unequivocally, as our records differ from historical observations of instabilities, and stability models tend to oversimplify the salient features of the jet.

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