Diurnal Shear Instability, the Descent of the Surface Shear Layer, and the Deep Cycle of Equatorial Turbulence Public Deposited


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  • A new theory of shear instability in a turbulent environment is applied to eight days of velocity and density profiles from the upper-equatorial Pacific. This period featured a regular diurnal cycle of surface forcing, together with a clear response in upper-ocean mixing. During the day, a layer of stable stratification and shear forms at the surface. During late afternoon and evening, this stratified shear layer descends, leaving the nocturnal mixing layer above it. Using high-resolution current measurements, the detailed structure of the descending shear layer is seen for the first time. Linear stability analysis is conducted using a new method that accounts for the effects of preexisting turbulence on instability growth. Shear instability follows a diurnal cycle linked to the afternoon descent of the surface shear layer. This cycle is revealed only when the effect of turbulence is accounted for in the stability analysis. The cycle of instability leads the diurnal mixing cycle, typically by 2–3 h, consistent with the time needed for instabilities to grow and break. Late at night, the resulting turbulence suppresses further instabilities, lending an asymmetry to the mixing cycle that has not been noticed in previous measurements. Deep cycle mixing is triggered by instabilities formed as the descending shear layer merges with the marginally unstable shear of the Equatorial Undercurrent. In the morning, turbulence decays and the upper ocean restratifies. Wind accelerates the near-surface flow to form a new unstable shear layer, and the cycle begins again.
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  • Smyth, W. D., J. N. Moum, L. Li, S. A. Thorpe, 2013: Diurnal Shear Instability, the Descent of the Surface Shear Layer, and the Deep Cycle of Equatorial Turbulence. Journal of Physical Oceanography, 43, 2432–2455. doi:10.1175/JPO-D-13-089.1
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