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Keywords:

  • internal tides;
  • ocean circulation;
  • ocean dynamics;
  • quasigeostrophic turbulence

[1] The slopes of the wavenumber spectra of sea surface height (SSH) and kinetic energy (KE) have been used to infer “interior” or surface quasi-geostrophic (QG or SQG) dynamics of the ocean. However, inspection of spectral slopes for altimeter SSH in the mesoscale band of 70 to 250 km shows much flatter slopes than the QG or SQG predictions over most of the ocean. Comparison of altimeter wavenumber spectra with spectra from an eddy resolving global ocean circulation model (the HYbrid Coordinate Ocean Model, HYCOM, at 1/12.5° equatorial resolution), which has embedded tides, suggests that the flatter slopes of the altimeter SSH may arise from three possible sources: (1) presence of strong internal tides, (2) shift of the inertial sub-range to smaller scales and (3) altimeter noise. Artificially adding noise to the model tends to flatten the spectra for low KE regions. Near internal tide generating regions, spectral slopes in the presence of internal waves are much flatter than QG or SQG predictions. Separating the variability into high and low frequency (around periods of 2 days), then a different pattern emerges with a flat high-frequency wavenumber spectrum and a steeper low-frequency wavenumber spectrum. For low mesoscale KE, the inertial sub-range, defined by the nearly flat enstrophy band, moves to smaller scales and the mesoscale band of 70 to 250 km no longer represents the inertial sub-range. The model wavenumber spectra are consistent with QG and SQG theory when internal waves and inertial sub-range shifts are taken into consideration.