Surface salinity variations in the global ocean are caused by freshwater exchange with the atmosphere and land, via evaporation, precipitation and runoff. The expectation that the water cycle will accelerate with global warming has motivated an increased interest in upper-ocean salinity; since the water cycle is predominantly over the ocean, the sea-surface salinity may well be the very best indicator of changes in the water cycle. In considering such ocean-atmosphere interactions, areas of surface salinity extrema are of special interest. A multi-agency field program, the Salinity Processes Upper-ocean Regional Studies (SPURS), to begin to understand the oceanic processes that control upper ocean salinity will be executed in 2012-13. SPURS is focused on the surface salinity maximum in the eastern North Atlantic. The salinity of the upper ocean is controlled by surface freshwater exchange with the atmosphere, mixing and entrainment from below, and mean and eddy advection by horizontal currents, including those due to geostrophic, Ekman and smaller scales of motion. Other elements of SPURS will evaluate many of these processes; here we propose to focus on upper-ocean mixing. Microstructure sensors on profiling and gliding platforms will be used to quantify the mixing processes operating within the salinity maximum region. In addition, model simulations will elucidate both model quality and the physical processes important to the mixing and upper ocean stability structure.

Intellectual Merit: Understanding and prediction of the evolution of the upper-ocean salinity field depends on accurate description and parameterization of the sub grid-scale mixing processes that dissipate the salinity variance created by surface water fluxes. Microstructure measurements will quantify the diabatic flux terms relevant to the temperature and salinity budgets being constrained by the overall SPURS study. The role of surface convection, internal wave processes, and double-diffusive mixing on these fluxes will be assessed. Model simulations, fed by the air-sea interaction buoy data, will help identify the source of the turbulence. Mixing parameterizations for double diffusion will be assessed through alteration of the model implementation to utilize diffusivities as taken from the microstructure based estimates. The combined approach of microstructure measurements and modeling is the most efficient route to provide information that could lead to improved parameterizations. The impact will be multiplied by the synergistic effects of being incorporated into the overall SPURS program, where observations and models of basin, regional and the mesoscale will be undertaken.

Broader Impacts: Improved understanding of ocean mixing processes are essential for advancing climate science, as the representation of sub grid-scale processes in large-scale models continues to be a major unresolved issue. The focus of this project on the salinity is especially relevant to documenting change in the global water cycle, which has tremendous implications for society. As part of this project the investigators will maintain web sites on SPURS and the mixing processes operant in the salinity maximum region. To enhance educational outreach, the investigators will collaborate with The Zephyr Education Foundation's innovative marine science literacy and education program, located in Woods Hole. The Zephyr Foundation is ideally suited for this purpose and attracts school groups from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including underrepresented and disadvantaged students from inner-city programs in Boston and New Bedford. This project will also involve active roles for full-time graduate students at WHOI/MIT. In addition, a modeling and data analysis module suitable for distribution will be produced.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE)
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Eric C. Itsweire
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Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Woods Hole
United States
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