Letters to Nature

Nature 403, 179-182 (13 January 2000) | doi:10.1038/35003164; Received 25 June 1999; Accepted 22 November 1999

Evidence for enhanced mixing over rough topography in the abyssal ocean

J. R. Ledwell, E. T. Montgomery, K. L. Polzin, L. C. St. Laurent, R. W. Schmitt & J. M. Toole

  1. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

Correspondence to: J. R. Ledwell Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to J.R.L. (e-mail: Email: jledwell@whoi.edu).

The overturning circulation of the ocean plays an important role in modulating the Earth's climate. But whereas the mechanisms for the vertical transport of water into the deep ocean—deep water formation at high latitudes—and horizontal transport in ocean currents have been largely identified, it is not clear how the compensating vertical transport of water from the depths to the surface is accomplished. Turbulent mixing across surfaces of constant density is the only viable mechanism for reducing the density of the water and enabling it to rise. However, measurements of the internal wave field, the main source of energy for mixing, and of turbulent dissipation rates, have typically implied diffusivities across surfaces of equal density of only approx0.1 cm2 s-1, too small to account for the return flow. Here we report measurements of tracer dispersion and turbulent energy dissipation in the Brazil basin that reveal diffusivities of 2–4 cm2 s-1 at a depth of 500 m above abyssal hills on the flank of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and approximately 10 cm2 s-1 nearer the bottom. This amount of mixing, probably driven by breaking internal waves that are generated by tidal currents flowing over the rough bathymetry, may be large enough to close the buoyancy budget for the Brazil basin and suggests a mechanism for closing the global overturning circulation.