© The Author(s), 2015. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License. The definitive version was published in Nature Communications 6 (2015): 6862, doi:10.1038/ncomms7862.
Although the strongest ocean surface currents occur at horizontal scales of order 100 km, recent numerical simulations suggest that flows smaller than these mesoscale eddies can achieve important vertical transports in the upper ocean. These submesoscale flows, 1–100 km in horizontal extent, take heat and atmospheric gases down into the interior ocean, accelerating air–sea fluxes, and bring deep nutrients up into the sunlit surface layer, fueling primary production. Here we present observational evidence that submesoscale flows undergo a seasonal cycle in the surface mixed layer: they are much stronger in winter than in summer. Submesoscale flows are energized by baroclinic instabilities that develop around geostrophic eddies in the deep winter mixed layer at a horizontal scale of order 1–10 km. Flows larger than this instability scale are energized by turbulent scale interactions. Enhanced submesoscale activity in the winter mixed layer is expected to achieve efficient exchanges with the permanent thermocline below.
J.C. and R.F. acknowledge financial support under grants ONR-N00014-09-1-0458 and NSF-OCE-1233832; J.M.K. under grants ONR-N00014-11-1-0165 and NSERC-327920-2006; J.G. under grant ONR-N00014-12-1-0105.
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