The role of horizontal divergence in submesoscale frontogenesis

Roy Barkan*, M. Jeroen Molemaker, Kaushik Srinivasan, James C. McWilliams, Eric A. D'asaro

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Oceanic surface submesoscale currents are characterized by anisotropic fronts and filaments with widths from 100 m to a few kilometers; an O(1) Rossby number; and large magnitudes of lateral buoyancy and velocity gradients, cyclonic vorticity, and convergence. We derive an asymptotic model of submeoscale frontogenesis—the rate of sharpening of submesoscale gradients—and show that in contrast with ‘‘classical’’ deformation frontogenesis, the near-surface convergent motions, which are associated with the ageostrophic secondary circulation, determine the gradient sharpening rates. Analytical solutions for the inviscid Lagrangian evolution of the gradient fields in the proposed asymptotic regime are provided, and emphasize the importance of ageostrophic motions in governing frontal evolution. These analytical solutions are further used to derive a scaling relation for the vertical buoyancy fluxes that accompany the gradient sharpening process. Realistic numerical simulations and drifter observations in the northern Gulf of Mexico during winter confirm the applicability of the asymptotic model to strong frontogenesis. Careful analysis of the numerical simulations and field measurements demonstrates that a subtle balance between boundary layer turbulence, pressure, and Coriolis effects (e.g., turbulent thermal wind; Gula et al. 2014) leads to the generation of the surface convergent motions that drive frontogenesis in this region. Because the asymptotic model makes no assumptions about the physical mechanisms that initiate the convergent frontogenetic motions, it is generic for submesoscale frontogenesis of O(1) Rossby number flows.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1593-1618
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Physical Oceanography
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2019


FundersFunder number
Office of Naval ResearchN000141812697, N000141410626
Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative


    Dive into the research topics of 'The role of horizontal divergence in submesoscale frontogenesis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this