Transition from Balanced to Unbalanced Motion in the Eastern Tropical Pacific
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Transition from Balanced to Unbalanced Motion in the Eastern Tropical Pacific


Abstract Kinetic energy associated with inertia–gravity waves (IGWs) and other ageostrophic phenomena often overwhelms kinetic energy due to geostrophic motions for wavelengths on the order of tens of kilometers. Understanding the dependencies of the wavelength at which balanced (geostrophic) variability ceases to be larger than unbalanced variability is important for interpreting high-resolution altimetric data. This wavelength has been termed the transition scale. This study uses acoustic Doppler current profiler (ADCP) data along with auxiliary observations and a numerical model to investigate the transition scale in the eastern tropical Pacific and the mechanisms responsible for its regional and seasonal variations. One-dimensional kinetic energy wavenumber spectra are separated into rotational and divergent components, and subsequently into vortex and wave components. The divergent motions, most likely predominantly IGWs, account for most of the energy at wavelengths less than 100 km. The observed regional and seasonal patterns in the transition scale are consistent with those from a high-resolution global simulation. Observations, however, show weaker seasonality, with only modest wintertime increases in vortex energy. The ADCP-inferred IGW wavenumber spectra suggest that waves with near-inertial frequency dominate the unbalanced variability, while in model output, internal tides strongly influence the wavenumber spectrum. The ADCP-derived transition scales from the eastern tropical Pacific are typically in the 100–200-km range.

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