The path-density distribution of oceanic surface-to-surface transport
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1029/2006JC003976
A novel diagnostic for advective-diffusive surface-to-surface paths is developed and applied to a global ocean model. The diagnostic provides, for the first time, a rigorous quantitative assessment of the great ocean conveyor's deep branch. A new picture emerges of a diffusive conveyor in which the deep North Pacific is a holding pen of long-residence-time water. Our diagnostic is the joint density, η, per unit volume and interior residence time, τ, of paths connecting two specified surface patches. The spatially integrated η determines the residence-time partitioned flux and volume of water in transit from entry to exit patch. We focus on interbasin paths from high-latitude water mass formation regions to key regions of re-exposure to the atmosphere. For non-overlapping patches, a characteristic timescale is provided by the residence time, τ ϕ, for which the associated flux distribution, ϕ, has its maximum. Paths that are fast compared to τ ϕ are organized by the major current systems, while paths that are slow compared to τ ϕ are dominated by eddy diffusion. Because ϕ has substantial weight in its tail for τ > τ ϕ, the fast paths account for only a minority of the formation-to-re-exposure flux. This conclusion is expected to apply to the real ocean based on recent tracer data analyses, which point to long eddy-diffusive tails in the ocean's transit-time distributions. The long-τ asymptotic path density is governed by two time-invariant patterns. One pattern, which we call the Deep North Pacific pattern, ultimately dominates a secondary redistribution pattern.