Surface Manifestation of Internal Tides in the Deep Ocean: Observations from Altimetry and Island Gauges

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The sea-surface height signatures of internal tides in the deep ocean, amounting to a few centimeters or less, are studied using two complementary measurement types: satellite altimetry and island tide gauges. Altimetry can detect internal tides that maintain coherence with the astronomical forcing; island gauges can monitor temporal variability which, in some circumstances, is due to internal tides varying in response to changes in the oceanic medium. This latter mechanism is at work at Hilo and other stations on the northern coasts of the Hawaiian Islands. By detecting spatially coherent low-frequency internal-tide modulations, the tide gauges, along with inverted echo sounders at sea, suggest that the mean internal tide is also spatially coherent; satellite altimetry confirms this. At Hawaii and in many other places, Topex/Poseidon altimetry detects mean surface waves, spatially coherent and propagating great distances (> 1000 km) before decaying below background noise. When temporal variability is small, the altimetry (plus information on ocean density) sets useful constraints on energy fluxes into internal tides. At the Hawaiian Ridge, 15 GW of tidal power is being converted from barotropic to first-mode baroclinic motion. Examples elsewhere warn that a simplistic interpretation of the altimetry, without regard to variability, noise, or in situ information, may be highly misleading. With such uncertainties, extension of the Hawaiian results into a usefully realistic estimate of the global internal-tide energy balance appears premature at this time.

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Progress in Oceanography, v. 40, issues 1-4, p. 135-162