Argon supersaturation indicates low decadal-scale vertical mixing in the ocean thermocline



[1] The rate of vertical mixing in the ocean's stratified waters limits the uptake of anthropogenic CO2, influences the strength of the overturning circulation, and regulates the transport of nutrients to the lighted surface waters, controlling global biological production. Despite this fundamental importance, there is a long-standing conundrum in oceanography that experimentally-measured rates of turbulent mixing across density surfaces (diapycnal mixing) in the main thermocline cannot support sufficient nutrient fluxes from below to explain rates of biological production measured in the subtropical euphotic zone. Possible solutions to this problem are transport mechanisms that occur intermittently on short time and space scales that would be difficult to observe in tracer- release experiments and are not resolved in large-scale ocean models. We tested this hypothesis by measuring highly-accurate argon profiles from the subtropical thermocline in the North Pacific Ocean. It has been shown theoretically that the change in argon supersaturation along density surfaces is a measure of diapycnal mixing averaged over the decadal time-scale of thermocline ventilation. Two different model interpretations of our data indicate that the mean rate of diapycnal mixing on density surfaces betweenσθ = 26.4 – 26.7 (depths 150–600 m) is no more than 0.2 × 10−4 m2 s−1. This supports low diapycnal mixing rates even on decadal time-scales and rules out enhancement of diapycnal mixing on this density interval by intermittent mixing or mixing at boundaries that propagates into the ocean interior.