Vertical structure of ocean surface currents under high winds from massive arrays of drifters

John Lodise, Tamay Özgökmen, Annalisa Griffa, Maristella Berta

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Very-near-surface ocean currents are dominated by wind and wave forcing and have large impacts on the transport of buoyant materials in the ocean. Surface currents, however, are under-resolved in most operational ocean models due to the difficultly of measuring ocean currents close to, or directly at, the air-sea interface with many modern instrumentations. Here, observations of ocean currents at two depths within the first meter of the surface are made utilizing trajectory data from both drogued and undrogued Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment (CARTHE) drifters, which have draft depths of 60 and 5 cm, respectively. Trajectory data of dense, colocated drogued and undrogued drifters were collected during the Lagrangian Submesoscale Experiment (LASER) that took place from January to March of 2016 in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Examination of the drifter data reveals that the drifter velocities become strongly wind- and wave-driven during periods of high wind, with the pre-existing regional circulation having a smaller, but non-negligible, influence on the total drifter velocities. During these high wind events, we deconstruct the total drifter velocities of each drifter type into their wind- and wave-driven components after subtracting an estimate for the regional circulation, which pre-exists each wind event. In order to capture the regional circulation in the absence of strong wind and wave forcing, a Lagrangian variational method is used to create hourly velocity field estimates for both drifter types separately, during the hours preceding each high wind event. Synoptic wind and wave output data from the Unified Wave INterface-Coupled Model (UWINCM), a fully coupled atmosphere, wave and ocean circulation model, are used for analysis. The wind-driven component of the drifter velocities exhibits a rotation to the right with depth between the velocities measured by undrogued and drogued drifters. We find that the average wind-driven velocity of undrogued drifters (drogued drifters) is ~ 3:4 %- 6.0% (~ 2:3 %-4.1 %) of the wind speed and is deflected ~ 5-55° (~ 30-85°) to the right of the wind, reaching higher deflection angles at higher wind speeds. Results provide new insight on the vertical shear present in wind-driven surface currents under high winds, which have vital implications for any surface transport problem.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1627-1651
Number of pages25
JournalOcean Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 9 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Palaeontology


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