Frontal Instability and Energy Dissipation in a Submesoscale Upwelling Filament

Jen-Ping Peng, Peter Holtermann, Lars Umlauf

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11 Citations (Scopus)


Based on high-resolution turbulence microstructure and near-surface velocity data, frontal instability and its relation to turbulence are investigated inside a transient upwelling filament in the Benguela upwelling system (southeast Atlantic). The focus of our study is a sharp submesoscale front located at the edge of the filament, characterized by persistent downfront winds, a strong frontal jet, and vigorous turbulence. Our analysis reveals three distinct frontal stability regimes. (i) On the light side of the front, a 30–40-m-deep turbulent surface layer with low potential vorticity (PV) was identified. This low-PV region exhibited a well-defined two-layer structure with a convective (Ekman-forced) upper layer and a stably stratified lower layer, where turbulence was driven by forced symmetric instability (FSI). Dissipation rates in this region scaled with the Ekman buoyancy flux, in excellent quantitative agreement with recent numerical simulations of FSI. (ii) Inside the cyclonic flank of the frontal jet, near the maximum of the cross-front density gradient, the cyclonic vorticity was sufficiently strong to suppress FSI. Turbulence in this region was driven by marginal shear instability. (iii) Inside the anticyclonic flank of the frontal jet, conditions for mixed inertial/symmetric instability were satisfied. Our data provide direct evidence for the relevance of FSI, inertial instability, and marginal shear instability for overall kinetic energy dissipation in submesoscale fronts and filaments. © 2020 American Meteorological Society.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2017-2035
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Physical Oceanography
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2020
Externally publishedYes


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