Airborne synthetic aperture radar observations of “spiral eddy” slick patterns in the Southern California Bight

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Abstract

[1] Repeat sampling on hourly time scales using an airborne synthetic aperture radar (SAR) is used to investigate the occurrence and evolving characteristics of spiral-shaped slick patterns, commonly presumed to be indicators of submesoscale ocean eddies, in the area around Santa Catalina Island, California (∼33.4°N, 118.4°W). Simultaneous SAR imagery and boat survey data are examined over two ∼5 h long periods spaced 3 days apart in April 2003. The SAR imagery reveals several spiral-like patterns, roughly 5 km in diameter, occurring downstream of the western end of Catalina. We believe that the most likely formation mechanism for these patterns is current-wake instability related to the flow of the Southern California Countercurrent along the north shore of Catalina. In one case, there is an observed cold-core eddy and vortex sheet attached to the tip of the island, similar to island-wake simulations done by Dong and McWilliams (2007). In another case, the SAR imagery shows a series of slick patterns that, at least initially, resemble spiral eddies, but the data show no clear evidence of actual ocean eddies being present either at depth or through a rotating surface expression. A speculation is that such features signify island-wake eddies that are relatively weak and dissipate quickly. An unexpected finding was how quickly a spiral slick pattern could deteriorate, suggesting a time scale for the surface feature of the order of only several hours. An implication of this result is that care is needed when interpreting a single satellite SAR imagery for evidence of active submesoscale eddies. Recommendations are made for future field studies.

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