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van Haren, H. & Gostiaux, L.

Energy release through internal wave breaking.

Oceanography, 25, 124–131 (2012)

The sun inputs huge amounts of heat to the ocean, heat that would stay near the ocean’s surface if it were not mechanically mixed into the deep. Warm water is less dense than cold water, so that heated surface waters “float” on top of the cold deep waters. Only active mechanical turbulent mixing can pump the heat downward.

Such mixing requires remarkably little energy, about one-thousandth of the heat stored, but it is crucial for ocean life and for nutrient and sediment transport. Several mechanisms for ocean mixing have been studied in the past. The dominant mixing mechanism seems to be breaking of internal waves above underwater topography. Here, we quantify the details of how internal waves transition to strong turbulent mixing by using high-sampling-rate temperature sensors. The sensors were moored above the sloping bottom of a large guyot (flat-topped submarine volcano) in the Canary Basin, North Atlantic Ocean. Over a tidal period, most mixing occurs in two periods of less than half an hour each. This “boundary mixing” dominates sediment resuspension and is 100 times more turbulent than open ocean mixing. Extrapolating, the mixing may be sufficiently effective to maintain the ocean’s density stratification.

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