On the Atlantic inflow to the Caribbean Sea

William E. Johns, Tamara L. Townsend, David M. Fratantoni, W. Douglas Wilson

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172 Scopus citations


New observations are summarized that lead to the first comprehensive description of the mean inflow distribution in the passages connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Caribbean Sea. The total Caribbean inflow of 28 Sv is shown to be partitioned approximately equally between the Windward Islands Passages (∼ 10 Sv), Leeward Islands Passages (∼ 8 Sv), and the Greater Antilles Passages (∼ 10 Sv). These results are compared to a numerical model study using a 6-layer, 1/4° resolution Atlantic Basin version of the NRL Layered Ocean Model. Results from two simulations are described, including a purely wind-forced model driven by Hellerman and Rosenstein (J. Phys. Oceanogr. 13 (1983) 1093) monthly winds, and a model with an additional 14 Sv meridional overturning cell driven by inflow/outflow ports at the northern (65°N) and southern (20°S) model boundaries. The purely wind-driven version of the model exhibits a total Caribbean inflow of 17 Sv, consistent with expectations from steady, non-topographic Sverdrup theory. Nearly all of the wind-driven inflow occurs north of Martinique at latitude ∼ 15°N. The net transport through the Lesser Antilles passages south of 15°N (Grenada, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia passages) is nearly zero when the model is forced by winds alone. The addition of a 14 Sv meridional cell in the model increases the net Caribbean inflow to 28 Sv, with nearly all of the additional 11 Sv of inflow entering through the southern Lesser Antilles passages. The modeled inflow distribution resulting from the combined wind and overturning forced experiment is found to compare favorably with the observations. The seasonal cycle of the total inflow in the combined forcing experiment has a mixed annual/semiannual character with maximum in spring and summer and minimum in fall, with a total range of about 4 Sv. The seasonal cycle of the Florida Current resulting from this inflow variation is in good qualitative agreement with observations. Most of the seasonal inflow variation occurs through the Windward Islands passages in the far southern Caribbean, whose annual cycle slightly leads that of the Florida and Yucatan Currents. Variability of the modeled inflow on shorter time scales shows a dramatic change in character moving northward along the Antilles arc. The southern passages exhibit large fluctuations on 30-80 day time scales, which decay to very small amplitudes north of Dominica. Much of this variability is caused by North Brazil Current Rings that propagate northwestward from the equatorial Atlantic and interact with the abrupt island arc topography. The total range of transport variability in individual passages predicted by the model is consistent with observations. However, observations are presently too limited to confirm the seasonal cycles or variability spectra in the Caribbean passages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-243
Number of pages33
JournalDeep-Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002


  • Caribbean Sea
  • Circulation
  • Transports

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science


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