Spectral signatures of the tropical Pacific dynamics from model and altimetry: a focus on the meso-/submesoscale range


The processes that contribute to the flat sea surface height (SSH) wavenumber spectral slopes observed in the tropics by satellite altimetry are examined in the tropical Pacific. The tropical dynamics are first investigated with a 1∕12∘ global model. The equatorial region from 10∘ N to 10∘ S is dominated by tropical instability waves with a peak of energy at 1000 km wavelength, strong anisotropy, and a cascade of energy from 600 km down to smaller scales. The off-equatorial regions from 10 to 20∘ latitude are characterized by a narrower mesoscale range, typical of midlatitudes. In the tropics, the spectral taper window and segment lengths need to be adjusted to include these larger energetic scales. The equatorial and off-equatorial regions of the 1∕12∘ model have surface kinetic energy spectra consistent with quasi-geostrophic turbulence. The balanced component of the dynamics slightly flattens the EKE spectra, but modeled SSH wavenumber spectra maintain a steep slope that does not match the observed altimetric spectra. A second analysis is based on 1∕36∘ high-frequency regional simulations in the western tropical Pacific, with and without explicit tides, where we find a strong signature of internal waves and internal tides that act to increase the smaller-scale SSH spectral energy power and flatten the SSH wavenumber spectra, in agreement with the altimetric spectra. The coherent M2 baroclinic tide is the dominant signal at ∼140 km wavelength. At short scales, wavenumber SSH spectra are dominated by incoherent internal tides and internal waves which extend up to 200 km in wavelength. These incoherent internal waves impact space scales observed by today's along-track altimetric SSH, and also on the future Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission 2-D swath observations, raising the question of altimetric observability of the shorter mesoscale structures in the tropics.
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