Rapid vertical exchange at fronts in the Northern Gulf of Mexico

Lixin Qu, Leif N. Thomas, Aaron F. Wienkers, Robert D. Hetland, Daijiro Kobashi, John R. Taylor, Fucent Hsuan Wei Hsu, Jennifer A. MacKinnon, R. Kipp Shearman & Jonathan D. Nash 

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-33251-7

Department of Energy, Office of Science, Earth & Environmental Systems Modeling Program Acknowledged Support: Yes, Multisector Dynamics, Regional and Global Modeling Analysis Programs, and Earth System Model Development


Over the Texas-Louisiana Shelf in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, the eutrophic, fresh Mississippi/Atchafalaya river plume isolates saltier waters below, supporting the formation of bottom hypoxia in summer. The plume also generates strong density fronts, features of the circulation that are known pathways for the exchange of water between the ocean surface and the deep. Using high-resolution ocean observations and numerical simulations, we demonstrate how the summer land-sea breeze generates rapid vertical exchange at the plume fronts. We show that the interaction between the land-sea breeze and the fronts leads to convergence/divergence in the surface mixed layer, which further facilitates a slantwise circulation that subducts surface water along isopycnals into the interior and upwells bottom waters to the surface. This process causes significant vertical displacements of water parcels and creates a ventilation pathway for the bottom water in the northern Gulf. The ventilation of bottom water can bypass the stratification barrier associated with the Mississippi/Atchafalaya river plume and might impact the dynamics of the region’s dead zone.

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