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Free Content Anatomy of a Langmuir supercell event

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Langmuir supercells (LS), which are Langmuir circulations (LC) extending over full water column depth during storms and revealed by high water column backscatter from surface-origin microbubbles and bottom-origin sediment, were discovered in 2003 during several months of measurements in 15 m of water near the coast of New Jersey. Both the structures themselves and the specific forcing conditions under which they occur have been documented elsewhere. This paper provides an account of the broader oceanographic setting of supercell events, focusing on conditions at the start and end. The start of events is associated with the presence of surface waves of intermediate type that “feel bottom” with amplitudes sufficiently large to resuspend sediment and achievement of three conditions for full-depth LC: an unstratified water column, La < ∼0.3 and |Ra| < 105, where Ra and La are dimensionless parameters derived from scaling of the wave-averaged momentum equation. Event cessation is associated with failure of one of the latter two conditions or the reappearance of stratification. There is no fixed order in which conditions necessary for full-depth LC are met or fail.

Comparison with data from a deeper site off Georgia suggests that coherent full-depth Langmuir circulations will not generally be observed in unstratified water columns much deeper than 25–30 m, a depth determined primarily by the wavelength of surface waves generated by typical storms.

We also document two features of LC acting in the surface layer of the stratified water column that existed prior to onset of the prototype LS event. First, LC confined to the surface layer generated first mode internal waves with frequency that of the stratified interior. Secondly, active surface layer LC did not act efficiently as direct agents of mixed layer deepening, which occurred primarily in two separate episodes of Richardson number lowered by increased shear. Instead, as a result of quasi-organized structure and enhanced vertical penetration relative to stress-driven turbulence, the primary role of LC may be to increase efficiency of momentum transfer to the surface layer, enhancing surface layer acceleration and contributing to onset of the shear instability that does deepen the surface layer.

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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2014

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  • The Journal of Marine Research, one of the oldest journals in American marine science, publishes peer-reviewed research articles covering a broad array of topics in physical, biological and chemical oceanography. Articles that deal with processes, as well as those that report significant observations, are welcome. Biological studies involving coupling between ecological and physical processes are preferred over those that report systematics. The editors strive always to serve authors and readers in the academic oceanographic community by publishing papers vital to the marine research in the long and rich tradition of the Sears Foundation for Marine Research. We welcome you to the Journal of Marine Research.
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