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A study of the Southern Ocean: Mean state, eddy genesis & demise, and energy pathways


The Southern Ocean (SO), due to its deep penetrating jets and eddies, is well-suited for studies that combine surface and sub-surface data. This thesis explores the use of Argo profiles and sea surface height (SSH) altimeter data from a statistical point of view. A linear regression analysis of SSH and hydrographic data reveals that the altimeter can explain, on average, about 35% of the variance contained in the hydrographic fields and more than 95% if estimated locally. Correlation maxima are found at mid-depth, where dynamics are dominated by geostrophy. Near the surface, diabatic processes are significant, and the variance explained by the altimeter is lower. Since SSH variability is associated with eddies, the regression of SSH with temperature (T) and salinity (S) shows the relative importance of S vs T in controlling density anomalies. The AAIW salinity minimum separates two distinct regions; above the minimum density changes are dominated by T, while below the minimum S dominates over T. The regression analysis provides a method to remove eddy variability, effectively reducing the variance of the hydrographic fields.

We use satellite altimetry and output from an assimilating numerical model to show that the SO has two distinct eddy motion regimes. North and south of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), eddies propagate westward with a mean meridional drift directed poleward for cyclonic eddies (CEs) and equatorward for anticyclonic eddies (AEs). Eddies formed within the boundaries of the ACC have an effective eastward propagation with respect to the mean deep ACC flow, and the mean meridional drift is reversed, with warm-core AEs propagating poleward and cold-core CEs propagating equatorward. This circulation pattern drives downgradient eddy heat transport, which could potentially transport a significant fraction (24 to 60 × 10^13 W) of the net poleward ACC eddy heat flux.

We show that the generation of relatively large amplitude eddies is not a ubiquitous feature of the SO but rather a phenomenon that is constrained to five isolated, well-defined “hotspots”. These hotspots are located downstream of major topographic features, with their boundaries closely following f/H contours. Eddies generated in these locations show no evidence of a bias in polarity and decay within the boundaries of the generation area. Eddies tend to disperse along f/H contours rather than following lines of latitude. We found enhanced values of both buoyancy (BP) and shear production (SP) inside the hotspots, with BP one order of magnitude larger than SP. This is consistent with baroclinic instability being the main mechanism of eddy generation. The mean potential density field estimated from Argo floats shows that inside the hotspots, isopycnal slopes are steep, indicating availability of potential energy. The hotspots identified in this thesis overlap with previously identified regions of standing meanders. We provide evidence that hotspot locations can be explained by the combined effect of topography, standing meanders that enhance baroclinic instability, and availability of potential energy to generate eddies via baroclinic instabilities.

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