Vorticity

in the Ocean
A vortex (vortices) is a spinning, often turbulent, flow of fluid. Any spiral motion
with closed streamlines is vortex flow. The motion of the fluid swirling rapidly
around a center is called a vortex.
The speed and rate of rotation of the fluid
are greatest at the center, and decrease
progressively with distance from the center.
Definition
Vortex created by the
passage of an aircraft
wing, revealed by
colored smoke shedding
Vortices over the Aleutian
islands in Alaska, viewed
in infrared bands
Atmosphere
Vortices over
Tornados-region
of the ocean (top)
and Gulf stream
(bottom)
Ocean
Briefly,


Vorticity

is the tendency to rotate (or is the rotation of fluid) 


Exact same form as Coriolis: 0 at equator, maximum at poles


Currents are faster on the western edge of N gyres 


Why?


Conservation of vorticity. Ocean circulation is not speeding up or slowing down


Can be explained by the balance of vorticity
Sign of vorticity


Clockwise rotation = 

negative vorticity


Counterclockwise rotation = 

positive vorticity
What does conservation in physics?
The total amount of something does 

not change


total energy


Angular momentum


Mass
Vorticity


Can be created two ways


Relative vorticity, caused by friction


Current shear: physical contact, i.e. water with river banks


Wind


Planetary vorticity


Similar to Coriolis
1. Current shear
2. Wind


The movement of large scale surface winds 

can create vorticity


The sum of these two, friction+wind, is 

termed relative vorticity
The rate of rotation can be expressed various ways. Consider a
bowl of water sitting on a table in a laboratory. The water may be
spinning in the bowl. In addition to the spinning of the water, the
bowl and the laboratory are rotating because they are on a
rotating Earth. The two processes are separate, and we can
consider two types of vorticity.
Relative Vorticity
The ocean and atmosphere do not rotate at exactly the same rate as Earth. They have some
rotation relative to Earth due to currents and winds. Relative vorticity

ζ

is the vorticity

due to
currents in the ocean (in other words, vorticity

is defined as the curl of the velocity field).
Mathematically it is:


=   V = curl
z
V
where V is the horizontal velocity vector. ζ

is positive for counter-clockwise rotation viewed from
above. This is the same sense as Earth's rotation in the northern hemisphere.
*Curl is the direction of the axis of rotation and the magnitude of the rotation. It can also be
described as the circulation density.
Planetary Vorticity

Everything on Earth, including the oceans, the atmosphere, and bowls of water rotates with 

the Earth. This rotation imparted by Earth is the planetary vorticity. It is twice the local rate 

of rotation of Earth:
f

= 2sin

(radians/s) = 2 sin

(cycles/day)
where f

is defined as the Coriolis

parameter, is the angular velocity of the earth and  

is 

the ocean parcel’s latitude. It is greatest at the poles where it is twice the rotation rate of 

Earth. Note that the vorticity

vanishes at the equator and that the vorticity

in the southern 

hemisphere is negative.
Absolute Vorticity

The sum of the planetary and relative vorticity

is called absolute vorticity:
Absolute vorticity

= (

+ f ),
where individual number can go up and down, but the sum is constant. The rotation 

rate of a column of fluid changes as the column is expanded or contracted. This 

changes the vorticity

through changes in ζ. 
To see how this happens, consider barotropic, geostrophic

flow in an ocean with 

depth H(x, y, t), where H is the distance from the sea surface to the bottom. That is, 

we allow the surface to have topography b.
Sketch of fluid flow used for 

deriving conservation of 

potential vorticity. From 

Cushman‐Roisin

(1994).
Potential vorticity
Potential vorticity

is conserved along a fluid trajectory:
Potential vorticity

= (

+ f ) / H
How do we measure vortices
Two ways
1.In-situ
-

Eulerian

methods: from ship, moored
-

Lagrangian

methods: acoustic or not, guided or
drifting
1.Satellite remote sensing
SST, SSH, SSS, SAR, Scat etc.
Measurements from ship
Isobars

is a contour (or line) of constant pressure.

Isohalines

is a contour (or line) of constant salinity.

Isopycnal

is a contour (or surface) of constant density.

Isotherm

is a contour (or surface) of constant temperature.
Mooring
Drogued surface drifters
Deep floats (isobaric/isopycnic floats) acoustically
tracked.
Iberian peninsula is the territory from the eastern part of
Spain, to the Far Coast of Portugal
Measurements
SST from NOAA-

AVHRR depicting the
pattern of Gulf Stream
Gulf Stream
Diagrams showing the formation of
cyclonic Gulf Stream ring Bob in
February-

March 1977 based on
infrared images from the NOAA-5
satellite. Ring Bob can be seen as the
area of raised isotherms and cool
surface temperatures
Sketch of time series of
SST showing swoddy

formation near Cape
Ferret (France) in 1990
Turbulence
- Turbulance

can occur in homogeneous or stratified fluids, and can also produce vortices.
-Turbulence is the irregular, random component of fluid motion.
- Its spatial scales are usually the smallest scales of the flow (from 0.01 to 10-meter overturning
motions that result in vertical transport and mixing).
-Our conceptual framework for understanding turbulence is largely

statistical
-Turbulent motions in a stratified fluid (layered fluid of different densities) mix fluid parcels from
different parts of the flow, thereby enhancing mixing across concentration gradients by
molecular diffusion.
Some important concepts of vorticity
Vorticity

strongly constrains ocean dynamics.

Vorticity

due to Earth's rotation is much greater than other sources of vorticity.
Taylor and Proudman

showed that vertical velocity is impossible in a uniformly rotating 

flow. The ocean is rigid in the direction parallel to the rotation axis. Hence Ekman

pumping requires that planetary vorticity

vary with latitude. This explains why Sverdrup

and Stommel

found that realistic oceanic circulation, which is driven by Ekman

pumping, 

requires that f vary with latitude.
The curl of the wind stress adds relative vorticity

to central gyres of each ocean basin. For 

steady state circulation in the gyre, the ocean must lose vorticity

in western boundary 

currents.
Positive wind stress curl leads to divergent flow in the Ekman

layer. The ocean's interior 

geostrophic

circulation adjusts through a northward mass transport.
Conservation of absolute vorticity

in an ocean with constant density leads to the 

conservation of potential vorticity. Thus changes in depth in an ocean of constant density 

requires changes of latitude of the current.