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Rapid cross-density ocean mixing at mid-depths in the Drake Passage measured by tracer release


Diapycnal mixing (across density surfaces) is an important process in the global ocean overturning circulation1,2,3. Mixing in the interior of most of the ocean, however, is thought to have a magnitude just one-tenth of that required to close the global circulation by the downward mixing of less dense waters4. Some of this deficit is made up by intense near-bottom mixing occurring in restricted ‘hot-spots’ associated with rough ocean-floor topography5,6, but it is not clear whether the waters at mid-depth, 1,000 to 3,000 metres, are returned to the surface by cross-density mixing or by along-density flows7. Here we show that diapycnal mixing of mid-depth (1,500 metres) waters undergoes a sustained 20-fold increase as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current flows through the Drake Passage, between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica. Our results are based on an open-ocean tracer release of trifluoromethyl sulphur pentafluoride. We ascribe the increased mixing to turbulence generated by the deep-reaching Antarctic Circumpolar Current as it flows over rough bottom topography in the Drake Passage. Scaled to the entire circumpolar current, the mixing we observe is compatible with there being a southern component to the global overturning in which about 20 sverdrups (1 Sv = 106 m3 s−1) upwell in the Southern Ocean, with cross-density mixing contributing a significant fraction (20 to 30 per cent) of this total, and the remainder upwelling along constant-density surfaces. The great majority of the diapycnal flux is the result of interaction with restricted regions of rough ocean-floor topography.

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Figure 1: Location of the tracer experiment and the vertical spread of the tracer during the first two years after release.
Figure 2: Mean diapycnal diffusivities from the point of release.


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We thank the officers and staff of the RV Thomas Thompson, RRS James Cook and RRS James Clark Ross for their assistance in making the observations at sea. We thank the UK Natural Environment Research Council and the US National Science Foundation for funding the DIMES experiment. A.J.W. thanks the Royal Society for support.

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Authors and Affiliations



A.J.W., J.R.L., M.-J.M., M.P.M. and A.C.N.G. planned and directed the tracer experiment. M.J.M. led the chemical analysis at sea, and, together with A.J.W., J.R.L., N.M. and B.M., obtained the tracer data. A.J.W., J.R.L., M.P.M., N.M., B.A.K. and A.C.N.G. analysed the physical oceanographic data. N.M. carried out the two-dimensional model computations. M.P.M., A.J.W. and A.C.N.G. planned and directed the research cruises. A.J.W. wrote the initial draft of the paper and all authors contributed to its revision.

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Correspondence to Andrew J. Watson.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Watson, A., Ledwell, J., Messias, MJ. et al. Rapid cross-density ocean mixing at mid-depths in the Drake Passage measured by tracer release. Nature 501, 408–411 (2013).

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