Low- and high-frequency oscillatory winds synergistically enhance nutrient entrainment and phytoplankton at fronts

Whitt, DB ; Lévy, M ; Taylor, John Ryan (2017-02-10)


When phytoplankton growth is limited by low nutrient concentrations, full-depth-integrated phytoplankton biomass increases in response to intermittent mixing events that bring nutrient-rich waters into the sunlit surface layer. Here it is shown how oscillatory winds can induce intermittent nutrient entrainment events and thereby sustain more phytoplankton at fronts in nutrient-limited oceans. Low-frequency (i.e., synoptic to planetary scale) along-front wind drives oscillatory cross-front Ekman transport, which induces intermittent deeper mixing layers on the less dense side of fronts. High-frequency wind with variance near the Coriolis frequency resonantly excites inertial oscillations, which also induce deeper mixing layers on the less dense side of fronts. Moreover, we show that low-frequency and high-frequency winds have a synergistic effect and larger impact on the deepest mixing layers, nutrient entrainment, and phytoplankton growth on the less dense side of fronts than either high-frequency winds or low-frequency winds acting alone. These theoretical results are supported by two-dimensional numerical simulations of fronts in an idealized nutrient-limited open-ocean region forced by low-frequency and high-frequency along-front winds. In these model experiments, higher-amplitude low-frequency wind strongly modulates and enhances the impact of the lower-amplitude high-frequency wind on phytoplankton at a front. Moreover, sensitivity studies emphasize that the synergistic phytoplankton response to low-frequency and high-frequency wind relies on the high-frequency wind just below the Coriolis frequency.