The dynamics of dense water cascades: from laboratory scales to the Arctic Ocean
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The sinking of dense shelf waters down the continental slope (or “cascading”) contributes to oceanic water mass formation and carbon cycling. Cascading is therefore of significant importance for the global overturning circulation and thus climate. The occurrence of cascades is highly intermittent in space and time and observations of the process itself (rather than its outcomes) are scarce. Global climate models do not typically resolve cascading owing to numerical challenges concerning turbulence, mixing and faithful representation of bottom boundary layer dynamics. This work was motivated by the need to improve the representation of cascading in numerical ocean circulation models. Typical 3-D hydrostatic ocean circulation models are employed in a series of numerical experiments to investigate the process of dense water cascading in both idealised and realistic model setups.
Cascading on steep bottom topography is modelled using POLCOMS, a 3-D ocean circulation model using a terrain-following s-coordinate system. The model setup is based on a laboratory experiment of a continuous dense water flow from a central source on a conical slope in a rotating tank. The descent of the dense flow as characterised by the length of the plume as a function of time is studied for a range of parameters, such as density difference, speed of rotation, flow rate and (in the model) diffusivity and viscosity. Very good agreement between the model and the laboratory results is shown in dimensional and non-dimensional variables. It is confirmed that a hydrostatic model is capable of reproducing the essential physics of cascading on a very steep slope if the model correctly resolves velocity veering in the bottom boundary layer. Experiments changing the height of the bottom Ekman layer (by changing viscosity) and modifying the plume from a 2-layer system to a stratified regime (by enhancing diapycnal diffusion) confirm previous theories, demonstrate their limitations and offer new insights into the dynamics of cascading outside of the controlled laboratory conditions.
In further numerical experiments, the idealised geometry of the conical slope is retained but up-scaled to oceanic dimensions. The NEMO-SHELF model is used to study the fate of a dense water plume of similar properties to the overflow of brine-enriched shelf waters from the Storfjorden in Svalbard. The overflow plume, resulting from sea ice formation in the Storfjorden polynya, cascades into the ambient stratification resembling the predominant water masses of Fram Strait. At intermediate depths between 200-500m the plume encounters a layer of warm, saline AtlanticWater. In some years the plume ‘pierces’ the Atlantic Layer and sinks into the deep Fram Strait while in other years it remains ‘arrested’ at Atlantic Layer depths. It has been unclear what parameters control whether the plume pierces the Atlantic Layer or not. In a series of experiments we vary the salinity ‘S’ and the flow rate ‘Q’ of the simulated Storfjorden overflow to investigate both strong and weak cascading conditions. Results show that the cascading regime (piercing, arrested or ‘shaving’ - an intermediate case) can be predicted from the initial values of S and Q. In those model experiments where the initial density of the overflow water is considerably greater than of the deepest ambient water mass we find that a cascade with high initial S does not necessarily reach the bottom if Q is low. Conversely, cascades with an initial density just slightly higher than the deepest ambient layer may flow to the bottom if the flow rate Q is high. A functional relationship between S/Q and the final depth level of plume waters is explained by the flux of potential energy (arising from the introduction of dense water at shallow depth) which, in our idealised setting, represents the only energy source for downslope descent and mixing.
Lastly, the influence of tides on the propagation of a dense water plume is investigated using a regional NEMO-SHELF model with realistic bathymetry, atmospheric forcing, open boundary conditions and tides. The model has 3 km horizontal resolution and 50 vertical levels in the sh-coordinate system which is specially designed to resolve bottom boundary layer processes. Tidal effects are isolated by comparing results from model runs with and without tides. A hotspot of tidally-induced horizontal diffusion leading to the lateral dispersion of the plume is identified at the southernmost headland of Spitsbergen which is in close proximity to the plume path. As a result the lighter fractions in the diluted upper layer of the plume are drawn into the shallow coastal current that carries Storfjorden water onto the Western Svalbard Shelf, while the dense bottom layer continues to sink down the slope. This bifurcation of the plume into a diluted shelf branch and a dense downslope branch is enhanced by tidally-induced shear dispersion at the headland. Tidal effects at the headland are shown to cause a net reduction in the downslope flux of Storfjorden water into deep Fram Strait. This finding contrasts previous results from observations of a dense plume on a different shelf without abrupt topography. The dispersive mechanism which is induced by the tides is identified as a mechanism by which tides may cause a relative reduction in downslope transport, thus adding to existing understanding of tidal effects on dense water overflows.
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