Research Interests

  • Ocean dynamics (including internal waves, the mixed layer, abyssal overflows and turbulence) and their impact on the global circulation and coastal ecosystems


  • B.A. Astrophysics, Swarthmore College, 1993
  • Ph.D. Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 1998

Recent Publications

MacKinnon, JA, Alford MH, Voet G, Zeiden K, Johnston STM, Siegelman M, Merrifield S, Merrifield M.  2019.  Eddy wake generation from broadband currents near Palau. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans. Abstract

Wake eddies are frequently created by flow separation where ocean currents encounter abrupt topography in the form of islands or headlands. Most previous work has concentrated on wake eddy generation by either purely oscillatory (usually tidal) currents, or quasi-steady mean flows. Here we report measurements near the point of flow separation at the northern end of the Palau island chain, where energetic tides and vertically sheared low-frequency flows are both present. Energetic turbulence measured near the very steeply sloping ocean floor varied cubically with the total flow speed (primarily tidal). The estimated turbulent viscosity suggests a regime of flow separation and eddying wake generation for flows that directly feel this drag. Small-scale (∼ 1 km), vertically sheared wake eddies of different vorticity signs were observed with a ship-board survey on both sides of the separation point, and significantly evolved over several tidal periods. The net production and export of vorticity into the wake, expected to sensitively depend on the interplay of tidal and low frequency currents, is explored here with a simple conceptual model. Application of the model to a 10-month mooring record suggests that inclusion of high frequency oscillatory currents may boost the net flux of vorticity into the ocean interior by a depth dependent factor of 2 to 25. Models that do not represent the effect of these high frequency currents may not accurately infer the net momentum or energy losses felt where strong flows encounter steep island or headland topography.

Pratt, LJ, Voet G, Pacini A, Tan S, Alford MH, Carter GS, Girton JB, Menemenlis D.  2019.  Pacific Abyssal Transport and Mixing: Through the Samoan Passage versus around the Manihiki Plateau. Journal of Physical Oceanography. 49:1577-1592. AbstractWebsite

AbstractThe main source feeding the abyssal circulation of the North Pacific is the deep, northward flow of 5–6 Sverdrups (Sv; 1 Sv ≡ 106 m3 s−1) through the Samoan Passage. A recent field campaign has shown that this flow is hydraulically controlled and that it experiences hydraulic jumps accompanied by strong mixing and dissipation concentrated near several deep sills. By our estimates, the diapycnal density flux associated with this mixing is considerably larger than the diapycnal flux across a typical isopycnal surface extending over the abyssal North Pacific. According to historical hydrographic observations, a second source of abyssal water for the North Pacific is 2.3–2.8 Sv of the dense flow that is diverted around the Manihiki Plateau to the east, bypassing the Samoan Passage. This bypass flow is not confined to a channel and is therefore less likely to experience the strong mixing that is associated with hydraulic transitions. The partitioning of flux between the two branches of the deep flow could therefore be relevant to the distribution of Pacific abyssal mixing. To gain insight into the factors that control the partitioning between these two branches, we develop an abyssal and equator-proximal extension of the “island rule.” Novel features include provisions for the presence of hydraulic jumps as well as identification of an appropriate integration circuit for an abyssal layer to the east of the island. Evaluation of the corresponding circulation integral leads to a prediction of 0.4–2.4 Sv of bypass flow. The circulation integral clearly identifies dissipation and frictional drag effects within the Samoan Passage as crucial elements in partitioning the flow.

Wagner, GL, Flierl G, Ferrari R, Voet G, Carter GS, Alford MH, Girton JB.  2019.  Squeeze dispersion and the effective diapycnal diffusivity of oceanic tracers. Geophysical Research Letters. 46:5378-5386. Abstract

Abstract We describe a process called “squeeze dispersion” in which the squeezing of oceanic tracer gradients by waves, eddies, and bathymetric flow modulates diapycnal diffusion by centimeter to meter-scale turbulence. Due to squeeze dispersion, the effective diapycnal diffusivity of oceanic tracers is different and typically greater than the average “local” diffusivity, especially when local diffusivity correlates with squeezing. We develop a theory to quantify the effects of squeeze dispersion on diapycnal oceanic transport, finding formulas that connect density-averaged tracer flux, locally measured diffusivity, large-scale oceanic strain, the thickness-weighted average buoyancy gradient, and the effective diffusivity of oceanic tracers. We use this effective diffusivity to interpret observations of abyssal flow through the Samoan Passage reported by Alford et al. (2013, and find that squeezing modulates diapycnal tracer dispersion by factors between 0.5 and 3.

Thorpe, SA, Malarkey J, Voet G, Alford MH, Girton JB, Carter GS.  2018.  Application of a model of internal hydraulic jumps. Journal of Fluid Mechanics. 834:125-148. AbstractWebsite

A model devised by Thorpe & Li (J. Fluid Mech., vol. 758, 2014, pp. 94-120) that predicts the conditions in which stationary turbulent hydraulic jumps can occur in the flow of a continuously stratified layer over a horizontal rigid bottom is applied to, and its results compared with, observations made at several locations in the ocean. The model identifies two positions in the Samoan Passage at which hydraulic jumps should occur and where changes in the structure of the flow are indeed observed. The model predicts the amplitude of changes and the observed mode 2 form of the transitions. The predicted dissipation of turbulent kinetic energy is also consistent with observations. One location provides a particularly well-defined example of a persistent hydraulic jump. It takes the form of a 390 m thick and 3.7 km long mixing layer with frequent density inversions separated from the seabed by some 200 m of relatively rapidly moving dense water, thus revealing the previously unknown structure of an internal hydraulic jump in the deep ocean. Predictions in the Red Sea Outflow in the Gulf of Aden are relatively uncertain. Available data, and the model predictions, do not provide strong support for the existence of hydraulic jumps. In the Mediterranean Outflow, however, both model and data indicate the presence of a hydraulic jump.

Zhao, ZX, Alford MH, Simmons HL, Brazhnikov D, Pinkel R.  2018.  Satellite investigation of the M-2 Internal Tide in the Tasman Sea. Journal of Physical Oceanography. 48:687-703. AbstractWebsite

The M-2 internal tide in the Tasman Sea is investigated using sea surface height measurements made by multiple altimeter missions from 1992 to 2012. Internal tidal waves are extracted by two-dimensional plane wave fits in 180 km by 180 km windows. The results show that the Macquarie Ridge radiates three internal tidal beams into the Tasman Sea. The northern and southern beams propagate respectively into the East Australian Current and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and become undetectable to satellite altimetry. The central beam propagates across the Tasman Sea, impinges on the Tasmanian continental slope, and partially reflects. The observed propagation speeds agree well with theoretical values determined from climatological ocean stratification. Both the northern and central beams refract about 158 toward the equator because of the beta effect. Following a concave submarine ridge in the source region, the central beam first converges around 45.5 degrees S, 155.5 degrees E and then diverges beyond the focal region. The satellite results reveal two reflected internal tidal beams off the Tasmanian slope, consistent with previous numerical simulations and glider measurements. The total energy flux from the Macquarie Ridge into the Tasman Sea is about 2.2 GW, of which about half is contributed by the central beam. The central beam loses little energy in its first 1000-km propagation, for which the likely reasons include flat bottom topography and weak mesoscale eddies.