Observations of the Transition Layer

Johnston, TMS, Rudnick DL.  2009.  Observations of the Transition Layer. Journal of Physical Oceanography. 39:780-797.

Date Published:



eddy fluxes, inertial currents, internal waves, models, new-england shelf, parameterization, surface boundary-layer, turbulence, upper-ocean, variability


The transition layer is the poorly understood interface between the stratified, weakly turbulent interior and the strongly turbulent surface mixed layer. The transition layer displays elevated thermohaline variance compared to the interior and maxima in current shear, vertical stratification, and potential vorticity. A database of 91 916 km or 25 426 vertical profiles of temperature and salinity from SeaSoar, a towed vehicle, is used to define the transition layer thickness. Acoustic Doppler current measurements are also used, when available. Statistics of the transition layer thickness are compared for 232 straight SeaSoar sections, which range in length from 65 to 1129 km with typical horizontal resolution of; 4 km and vertical resolution of 8 m. Transition layer thicknesses are calculated in three groups from 1) vertical displacements of the mixed layer base and of interior isopycnals into the mixed layer; 2) the depths below the mixed layer depth of peaks in shear, stratification, and potential vorticity and their widths; and 3) the depths below or above the mixed layer depth of extrema in thermohaline variance, density ratio, and isopycnal slope. From each SeaSoar section, the authors compile either a single value or a median value for each of the above measures. Each definition yields a median transition layer thickness from 8 to 24 m below the mixed layer depth. The only exception is the median depth of the maximum isopycnal slope, which is 37 m above the mixed layer base, but its mode is 15-25 m above the mixed layer base. Although the depths of the stratification, shear, and potential vorticity peaks below the mixed layer are not correlated with the mixed layer depth, the widths of the shear and potential vorticity peaks are. Transition layer thicknesses from displacements and the full width at half maximum of the shear and potential vorticity peak give transition layer thicknesses from 0.11X to 0.22X the mean depth of the mixed layer. From individual profiles, the depth of the shear peak below the stratification peak has a median value of 6 m, which shows that momentum fluxes penetrate farther than buoyancy fluxes. A typical horizontal scale of 5-10 km for the transition layer comes from the product of the isopycnal slope and a transition layer thickness suggesting the importance of submesoscale processes in forming the transition layer. Two possible parameterizations for transition layer thickness are 1) a constant of 11-24 m below the mixed layer depth as found for the shear, stratification, potential vorticity, and thermohaline variance maxima and the density ratio extrema; and 2) a linear function of mixed layer depth as found for isopycnal displacements and the widths of the shear and potential vorticity peaks.