Evaluating ocean eddies in coupled climate simulations on a global scale

Email: s.moreton@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Despite being only between ~10-100 km in spatial scale, mesoscale ocean eddies are important for their role in global heat transport, responding to climate change as well as fluxing heat, momentum and freshwater between the ocean and overlying atmosphere.

As climate models move towards higher resolution, their ocean components are now able to begin to resolve mesoscale eddies. A high resolution ocean is typically defined as ‘eddy-present’ (EP, ¼ degree) where some eddies are permitted at low- to mid- latitudes, or ‘eddy-rich’ (ER, 1/12 degree) where eddies are presented at most latitudes, excluding the Arctic basin and the continental shelf around Antarctica. The benefits of the increased computational expense, associated with running global climate models with a high-resolution ocean, need to be clearly identified [Hewitt et al., 2017]. Many modelling centres have not yet developed an operational version of their climate models with a high resolution ocean component. The benefits of an EP resolution ocean (where some, but not all, eddies are resolved) is not necessarily superior to a coarser resolution ocean with full eddy parameterization.

As part of my PhD, we present the first global assessment of mesoscale surface eddy properties (e.g. distribution, size, speed and lifetime) in two versions of a high-resolution coupled model, with either an EP or an ER resolution ocean. The model results are validated against a gridded satellite altimeter dataset (called AVISO) with a resolution of ¼ degree [Ducet et al., 2000]. We identify and track closed coherent mesoscale eddies, which are defined by their sea surface height (SSH) contours, each day over a 20-year period . Our tracking algorithm is based on Chelton et al. [2011] and Mason et al. [2014]. Our two immediate questions are: how does the representation of mesoscale eddies change between EP and ER resolution? And how do these properties compare to observations and theoretical predictions?

For a full description and evaluation of the results the reader is referred to Moreton et al. [2020], instead key results are highlighted as following:

  • Relative to EP, ER resolution simulates more (+60%) and longer-lasting (+23%) eddies, in better agreement with observations. This is shown in the probability density function and zonal average of eddy lifetime for each dataset in figure 1, as well as in the maps of eddy genesis in Figure 2. Both model resolutions represent eddies at the Western Boundary Currents (WBCs) and in the Southern Ocean well, however both fail to capture as many eddies in subtropical gyre interiors, as found in observations. This reflects model biases at the Eastern Boundary Upwelling Systems, and at the Indonesian outflow.
Figure 1: Probability density function of eddy lifetime (left) and zonal average of eddy lifetime (right). Both plots use eddies with lifetimes longer than 1 month.
  • Eddies are not expected to be able to be resolved when model grid spacing is larger than the Rossby radius of deformation (i.e. at high latitudes as the model grid spacing converges towards the poles ) [Hallberg et al., 2013]. Interestingly, EP resolution does allow for some eddy growth in these regions, although admittedly less than in ER resolution and observations, as shown in the eddy genesis maps in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Eddy genesis (number of eddies per year) for eddies lasting longer than 1 week (binned to 1 degree x 1 degree boxes).
  • A particularly striking outcome of our analysis was the large differences in eddy size across the two resolutions and in observations, as demonstrated by the probability density functions in Figure 3. Note in the figure a speed-based radius is shown (Lspd): a radius typically used to define eddy size [Chelton et al., 2011]. As expected, small eddies in the finer ER resolution are able to be resolved, but interestingly less larger eddies are represented, in comparison to EP resolution and observations. In addition, the increased eddy size in observations compared to EP resolution is noteworthy, despite both having the same apparent resolution of ¼ degree. It is likely observed eddy radii are biased high by the post-processing and interpolation in the creation of the gridded satellite dataset. Caution is advised when using observational eddies, for example in developing eddy parameterization and understanding eddy dynamics.
Figure 3: Probability density functions (pdf) of the lifetime-averaged eddy radius (Lspd): a normalized pdf on a linear scale with 2km bins. The black dotted lines are plotted on the medians for each resolution: the median values are 48km, 32km and 14km for observations, EP and ER resolution respectively. (The blue dotted lines can be ignored, see Moreton et al. [2020]).

This work lays the foundation to explore the role of these tracked eddies in mesoscale air-sea coupling within the climate system, something I am currently working on [Moreton et al., in prep].

This work is funded by the NERC CASE studentship with the Met Office, UK.


D. B. Chelton, M. G. Schlax, and R. M. Samelson. Global observations of nonlinear mesoscale eddies. Progress in Oceanography, 91:167 – 216, 2011, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pocean.2011.01.002

N. Ducet, P. Y. Le Traon, and G. Reverdin. Global high-resolution mapping of ocean circulation from TOPEX/Poseidon and ERS-1 and -2. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 105(C8):19477–19498, 2000, https://doi.org/10.1029/2000JC900063

R. Hallberg. Using a resolution function to regulate parameterizations of oceanic mesoscale eddy effects. Ocean Modelling, 72:92–103, 2013, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocemod.2013.08.007

H. T. Hewitt, M. J. Bell, E. P. Chassignet, A. Czaja, D. Ferreira, S. M. Griffies, P. Hyder, J. L. McClean, A. L. New, and M. J. Roberts. Will high-resolution global ocean models benefit coupled predictions on short-range to climate timescales? Ocean Modelling, 120, 120-136, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocemod.2017.11.002

E. Mason, A. Pascual, and J. C. McWilliams. A new sea surface height-based code for oceanic mesoscale eddy tracking. Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, 31(5):1181–1188, 2014, https://doi.org/10.1175/JTECH-D-14-00019.1

S. Moreton, D. Ferreira, M. Roberts and H. Hewitt. Evaluating surface eddy properties in coupled climate simulations with ‘eddy-present’ and ‘eddy-rich’ ocean resolution. Ocean Modelling, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocemod.2020.101567

S. Moreton, D. Ferreira, M. Roberts and H. Hewitt. SST air-sea heat flux feedback over mesoscale eddies in coupled climate models, in prep.