Submesoscale dynamics in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Part I: Regional and seasonal characterization and the role of River outflow

Roy Barkan, James C. Mcwilliams, Alexander F. Shchepetkin, M. Jeroen Molemaker, Lionel Renault, Annalisa Bracco, Jun Choi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Realistic, submesoscale-resolving numerical simulations are used to characterize the flow's statistics and the geography of surface submesoscale currents in the northern Gulf of Mexico. This study examines the role of the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River system in driving submesoscale currents during winter and summer, on and off the shelf, by investigating two sets of statistically equilibrated solutions, with and without river forcing. In this paper, the first of three, the authors analyze vorticity ζ, horizontal divergence δ, and available potential energy to eddy kinetic energy conversion w'b' and show that river forcing has an important effect on the spatial distribution and magnitudes of submesoscale currents in both seasons. During winter, solutions without river forcing display an increase in seasonal-mean values of ζ, δ and w'b' compared to solutions with river forcing, particularly east of the Mississippi River delta and offshore. On the contrary, during summer, seasonal-mean values are larger in solutions with river forcing throughout the entire region. The river effects can be rationalized in terms of scaling arguments that relate submesoscale current magnitudes to the surface boundary layer depth and lateral buoyancy gradients. River outflow enhances submesoscale currents by increasing lateral buoyancy gradients but suppresses them by decreasing the boundary layer depth.Adiscussion of the submesoscale-generating mechanisms that in each season may determine whether the enhancement effect overcomes the suppression effect or vice versa is presented. Regional comparisons of horizontal velocity spectra, root-mean-square ζ, root-mean-square δ, and root-mean-square w'b' across different resolutions show no sign of convergence even at 150-m horizontal resolution. This demonstrates the numerical challenge of modeling the full range of submesoscale currents.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2325-2346
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Physical Oceanography
Issue number9
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Regional models
  • Rivers

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography


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