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Oceanic Bottom Boundary Layers and Abyssal Overturning Circulation


Ruan, Xiaozhou (2019) Oceanic Bottom Boundary Layers and Abyssal Overturning Circulation. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/6EZA-R251.


The vast amount of carbon and heat exchange between the abyssal and upper ocean and subsequently the atmosphere is paced by the abyssal overturning circulation. A key component of the abyssal overturning circulation is the formation and consumption of the densest water mass on Earth, Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW), namely the conversion of North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) to AABW and the consumption of AABW via small-scale diapycnal mixing. Yet, this pathway of AABW spanning thousands of kilometers has not been successfully reproduced in large-scale general circulation models (GCM). What is missing is essentially the understanding and resolution of small-scale physics involved in converting deep and bottom waters from one density class to another, the water mass transformation (WMT). In this thesis, we focus on small-scale (both in the horizontal and vertical directions) dynamics near the BBL, where enhanced shear, mixing and turbulence exist to facilitate effective WMT above the seafloor.

From high-resolution ocean glider observations around Antarctica, we find that a portion of Lower Circumpolar Deep Water, a branch of NADW, becomes lighter via mixing with light shelf water over the continental slope and shelf, instead of being converted into dense AABW under sea ice. This mixing is likely induced by submesoscale symmetric instability coming from a strong boundary current interacting with the sloping topography in the BBL. We then consider how to sustain the consumption of AABW in the global mid-ocean ridge system. Using numerical models, we show that submesoscale baroclinic eddies are crucial to maintaining strong stratification over the flanks of the mid-ocean ridges and thus permitting effective WMT. Lastly, we consider the interaction between external mean flows and stratified BBL over sloping topography. With the large-scale turbulence resolved in a large-eddy simulation model, we propose a new theoretical framework to describe the evolution of the BBL and the Eulerian advection of its associated stratification when external barotropic flows are present. This new framework can be used to parameterize bottom friction, important for closing the kinetic energy budget of the global ocean. We further extend this interaction to a horizontally-sheared and temporally-oscillating external mean flow and explore the response of the BBL and the BBL-interior mass exchange with simple turbulent parameterizations.

Using a combination of different approaches, we confirm that the long-overlooked oceanic BBL is the key location for closing the abyssal overturning circulation. More importantly, without appropriate techniques to tackle the currently unresolved small-scale processes, they will likely remain a narrow bottleneck in understanding the abyssal overturning circulation.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Ocean dynamics; Boundary layers; Turbulence;
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Geological and Planetary Sciences
Major Option:Environmental Science and Engineering
Minor Option:Applied And Computational Mathematics
Awards:Richard Bruce Chapman Memorial Award, 2019.
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Thompson, Andrew F.
Thesis Committee:
  • Schneider, Tapio (chair)
  • Thompson, Andrew F.
  • Callies, Jörn
  • McKeon, Beverley J.
  • Stewart, Andrew L.
Defense Date:26 February 2019
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05302019-121137858
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription adapted for Chapter 2. adapted for Chapter 4. adapted for Chapter 5.
Ruan, Xiaozhou0000-0003-1240-1584
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:11568
Deposited By: Xiaozhou Ruan
Deposited On:31 May 2019 19:27
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 00:26

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