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Interocean exchange of thermocline water


  • Arnold L. Gordon


Formation of North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) represents a transfer of upper layer water to abyssal depths at a rate of 15 to 20 × 106 m3/s. NADW spreads throughout the Atlantic Ocean and is exported to the Indian and Pacific Oceans by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and deep western boundary currents. Naturally, there must be a compensating flow of upper layer water toward the northern North Atlantic to feed NADW production. It is proposed that this return flow is accomplished primarily within the ocean's warm water thermocline layer. In this way the main thermoclines of the ocean are linked as they participate in a thermohaline-driven global scale circulation cell associated with NADW formation. The path of the return flow of warm water is as follows: Pacific to Indian flow within the Indonesian Seas, advection across the Indian Ocean in the 10°–15°S latitude belt, southward transfer in the Mozambique Channel, entry into the South Atlantic by a branch of the Agulhas Current that does not complete the retroflection pattern, northward advection within the subtropical gyre of the South Atlantic (which on balance with the southward flux of colder North Atlantic Deep Water supports the northward oceanic heat flux characteristic of the South Atlantic), and cross-equatorial flow into the western North Atlantic. The magnitude of the return flow increases along its path as more NADW is incorporated into the upper layer of the ocean. Additionally, the water mass characteristics of the return flow are gradually altered by regional ocean-atmosphere interaction and mixing processes. Within the Indonesian seas there is evidence of strong vertical mixing across the thermocline. The cold water route, Pacific to Atlantic transport of Subantarctic water within the Drake Passage, is of secondary importance, amounting to perhaps 25% of the warm water route transport. The continuity or vigor of the warm water route is vulnerable to change not only as the thermohaline forcing in the northern North Atlantic varies but also as the larger-scale wind-driven circulation factors vary. The interocean links within the Indonesian seas and at the Agulhas retroflection may be particularly responsive to such variability. Changes in the warm water route continuity may in turn influence formation characteristics of NADW.