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Physical Oceanography Seminar: Xiaolin Zhang

Thu, 2017/03/09 - 1:00pm
Xiaolin Zhang
OSB 327

Event Details

The Role of Equatorial Pacific Currents in El Niño and El Niño Prediction

Xiaolin Zhang
PhD Physical Oceanography Candidate


Major Professor:  Dr. Allan J. Clarke

Dissertation Defense will follow the seminar

Abstract:  Fundamental to an understanding of El Niño/Southern Oscillation climate fluctuations is an understanding of the interannual equatorial Pacific surface flows, which advect the surface waters and change the sea surface temperature. While some knowledge of the observed interannual flows has already been obtained, some key features are still not fully understood. Using the long records of satellite altimeter data, together with long in situ records of current, salinity and temperature from the TAO/TRITON array in the equatorial Pacific, the observed interannual surface flows, their dynamics and link to the El Niño Prediction can be understood better.

In the first half of the thesis, I used theoretical arguments and a wind-forced ocean model to understand why the equatorial eastern Pacific flow leads sea level, eastern equatorial thermocline displacement and El Niño indices. This half of the thesis is based on the result that for large zonal scales and low frequencies, wind-forced sea level, even near the equator, can be described by wind-forced long Rossby waves. In the eastern equatorial Pacific where the interannual wind forcing is small, these waves are essentially locallly unforced and propogate westward from the boundary. At the boundary the wave’s sea level is in phase because of geostrophy and no normal flow to the boundary. However, because the waves propogate more slowly with increasing latitude, west of the boundary lag increases as latitude increases. Consequently a northward sea level gradient is like a time derivative, and the zonal geostrophic flow is like a time derivitive of the sea level. This implies that the equatorial flow should lead the equatorial sea level by about 9 months on El Niño time scales. Analysis shows that when dissipation of the large-scale flow is taken into account, this lead is reduced to abotu 3 months. This lead time is approximately the dissipation time scale of the second vertical mode, which dominates the zonal surface flow. Since the eastern equatorial Pacific sea level is proportional to eastern equatorial thermocline displacement and El Niño, the zonal equatorial flow leads El Niño indices. Analysis further shows that the zonally-averaged equatorial Pacific sea level leads El Niño, and that this lead is associated with the geostrophic zonal velocity and the long Rossby wave physics in the eastern equatorial Pacific.

The second part of this work addresses the influence of the heavy precipitation on the Western equatorial Pacific Ocean. Surface and subsurface salinity and temperature measurements at 137oE, 147oE, and 156oE since the late 1990s from the western equatorial Pacific TRITON moored array indicate that the large interannual sea surface salinity (SSS) fluctuations there change little with depth over the top 50m of the water column. Beneath this surface layer the SSS signal decreases, and is usually much smaller than, interannual sea surface height (SSH) estimated from altimeter data. Despite the smaller size of, its meridional gradient dominates the total sea level meridional gradient and thus the corresponding shallow equatorially-trapped interannual fresh water jet dominates the near-surface zonal interannual flow. This jet-like flow ha sa meridional scale of only about 2-3o of latitude, an amplitude of 23cm/s, and is associated with the zonal back and forth displacement of the western equatorial warm/fresh pool that is fundamental to El Niño. The jet is not forced by the interannual fresh water surface flux but rather by wind stress anomalies that are mostly east of the warm/fresh pool edge during La Niña and mostly west of it during El Niño.