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Imprint of Southern Ocean eddies on winds, clouds and rainfall



Owing to the turbulent nature of the ocean, mesoscale eddies are omnipresent. The impact of these transitory and approximately circular sea surface temperature fronts on the overlying atmosphere is not well known. Stationary fronts such as the Gulf Stream have been reported to lead to pronounced atmospheric changes1,2. However, the impact of transient ocean eddies on the atmosphere has not been determined systematically, except on winds and to some extent clouds3,4,5,6. Here, we examine the atmospheric conditions associated with over 600,000 individual eddies in the Southern Ocean, using satellite data. We show that ocean eddies locally affect near-surface wind, cloud properties and rainfall. The observed pattern of atmospheric change is consistent with a mechanism in which sea surface temperature anomalies associated with the oceanic eddies modify turbulence in the atmospheric boundary layer. In the case of cyclonic eddies, this modification triggers a slackening of near-surface winds, a decline in cloud fraction and water content, and a reduction in rainfall. We conclude that transient mesoscale ocean structures can significantly affect much larger atmospheric low-pressure systems that swiftly pass by at the latitudes investigated.

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Figure 1: Polar orthographic maps of the eddy statistics.
Figure 2: Mean eddy and pattern of its atmospheric imprint.
Figure 3: Impact of mesoscale oceanic eddies on the atmosphere.


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The Center for Climate Systems Modelling (C2SM) at ETH Zürich provided financial support for this project.

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I.F., M.M. and N.G. conceived the study, I.F. performed all analyses with support from M.M. R.K. provided support concerning statistical methods. All authors contributed to the interpretation and writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to I. Frenger.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Frenger, I., Gruber, N., Knutti, R. et al. Imprint of Southern Ocean eddies on winds, clouds and rainfall. Nature Geosci 6, 608–612 (2013).

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