Squeeze Dispersion and the Effective Diapycnal Diffusivity of Oceanic Tracers

(Wagner, Gregory L. and Flierl, Glenn and Ferrari, Raffaele and Voet, Gunnar and Carter, Glenn S. and Alford, Matthew H. and Girton, James B.), Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 46, no. 10, pp. pages, 2019.


We describe a process called `squeeze dispersion’ in which the squeezing of oceanic tracer gradients by waves, eddies, and bathymetric flow modulates diapycnal diffusion by centimeter to meter‐scale turbulence. Due to squeeze dispersion, the effective diapycnal diffusivity of oceanic tracers is different and typically greater than the average `local’ diffusivity, especially when local diffusivity correlates with squeezing. We develop a theory to quantify the effects of squeeze dispersion on diapycnal oceanic transport, finding formulas that connect density‐average tracer flux, locally‐measured diffusivity, large‐scale oceanic strain, the thickness‐weighted average buoyancy gradient, and the effective diffusivity of oceanic tracers. We use this effective diffusivity to interpret observations of abyssal flow through the Samoan Passage reported by Alford et al. (2013) and find that squeezing modulates diapycnal tracer dispersion by factors between 0.5 and 3. Turbulent vertical ocean mixing forms a key part of the Earth’s climate system by drawing atmospheric carbon and heat into the massive reservoir that is the deep ocean. Quantifying vertical ocean mixing is difficult: vertical mixing is associated with turbulence at the tiny scales of centimeters to meters, but affects the entire ocean on the long time scales of decades and centuries. We demonstrate that vertical ocean mixing depends not textlessitextgreateronlytextless/itextgreater on small scale turbulence as previously thought, but on the textlessitextgreatercombinationtextless/itextgreater of small scale turbulence and larger scale motions, such as currents, eddies and waves similar to the jet streams and hurricanes of the atmosphere. In particular, when a patch of ocean is mixed by small‐scale turbulence while being ‘squeezed’ in the vertical at the same time by currents and eddies, the patch ultimately mixes more quickly than the turbulence would cause alone. This means that estimating the total rate of oceanic vertical mixing requires knowledge both of the magnitude of ocean squeezing as well as the intensity of small scale ocean turbulence.

doi = 10.1029/2019GL082458

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