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On the structure of Langmuir turbulence

Teixeira, M.A.C. and Belcher, S. E. (2010) On the structure of Langmuir turbulence. Ocean modelling, 31 (3-4). pp. 105-119. ISSN 1463-5003

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1016/j.ocemod.2009.10.007


The Stokes drift induced by surface waves distorts turbulence in the wind-driven mixed layer of the ocean, leading to the development of streamwise vortices, or Langmuir circulations, on a wide range of scales. We investigate the structure of the resulting Langmuir turbulence, and contrast it with the structure of shear turbulence, using rapid distortion theory (RDT) and kinematic simulation of turbulence. Firstly, these linear models show clearly why elongated streamwise vortices are produced in Langmuir turbulence, when Stokes drift tilts and stretches vertical vorticity into horizontal vorticity, whereas elongated streaky structures in streamwise velocity fluctuations (u) are produced in shear turbulence, because there is a cancellation in the streamwise vorticity equation and instead it is vertical vorticity that is amplified. Secondly, we develop scaling arguments, illustrated by analysing data from LES, that indicate that Langmuir turbulence is generated when the deformation of the turbulence by mean shear is much weaker than the deformation by the Stokes drift. These scalings motivate a quantitative RDT model of Langmuir turbulence that accounts for deformation of turbulence by Stokes drift and blocking by the air–sea interface that is shown to yield profiles of the velocity variances in good agreement with LES. The physical picture that emerges, at least in the LES, is as follows. Early in the life cycle of a Langmuir eddy initial turbulent disturbances of vertical vorticity are amplified algebraically by the Stokes drift into elongated streamwise vortices, the Langmuir eddies. The turbulence is thus in a near two-component state, with suppressed and . Near the surface, over a depth of order the integral length scale of the turbulence, the vertical velocity (w) is brought to zero by blocking of the air–sea interface. Since the turbulence is nearly two-component, this vertical energy is transferred into the spanwise fluctuations, considerably enhancing at the interface. After a time of order half the eddy decorrelation time the nonlinear processes, such as distortion by the strain field of the surrounding eddies, arrest the deformation and the Langmuir eddy decays. Presumably, Langmuir turbulence then consists of a statistically steady state of such Langmuir eddies. The analysis then provides a dynamical connection between the flow structures in LES of Langmuir turbulence and the dominant balance between Stokes production and dissipation in the turbulent kinetic energy budget, found by previous authors.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Faculty of Science > School of Mathematical, Physical and Computational Sciences > Department of Meteorology
Interdisciplinary centres and themes > Walker Institute
ID Code:16602
Publisher:Elsevier Inc.

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