Publication Date

2011-06-22

Availability

Open access

Embargo Period

2011-06-22

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)

Department

Meteorology and Physical Oceanography (Marine)

Date of Defense

2011-04-12

First Committee Member

Vassiliki H. Kourafalou

Second Committee Member

Thomas N. Lee

Third Committee Member

William E. Johns

Fourth Committee Member

Patrick J. Hogan

Fifth Committee Member

George R. Halliwell

Abstract

River plumes often develop in complex environments, where variable coastal and bottom topography, ambient currents, winds and tides may play important roles in shaping the plume evolution. When all these factors are present, the plume dynamics may become intricate and unclear. The objective of this study is to understand the processes controlling the dynamics of a large river plume that is affected by strong boundary currents, variable winds and complex topography. The Mississippi River (MR) plume is the study case of this dissertation work, and focus is given to the interactions between the plume and the offshore circulation of the Gulf of Mexico (GoM). A series of numerical experiments was designed to investigate the impact of different factors on the development of a large scale river plume in scenarios with variable degrees of complexity. First, a box-like model with an idealized estuary was designed to address the general development of a mid-latitude river plume and assess the variability of the plume with changes in the outflow conditions at the river mouth. The structure and development of the plume in the flat-bottom, receiving basin was highly dependent on the degree of freshwater mixing at the source. Larger freshwater mixing enhanced the estuarine gravitational circulation and modified the dynamical balance at the estuary mouth. Those changes effectively modified the shape of the bulge and length/transport scales of the coastal current. Sloping-bottom conditions further modified the development of the plume. Secondly, a Northern GoM model was designed and numerical experiments were conducted to investigate the specific dynamics of the MR plume, in the presence of both shelf and basin-wide circulation. In particular, buoyancy-driven (due to the MR and all other major Northern GoM rivers) and wind-driven currents were studied on the shelf, while the extension of the Loop Current and associated frontal eddies were considered as major factors in the shelf to offshore interactions; wind-driven, shelfbreak eddies were also considered. Process-oriented experiments demonstrate that westerly and southerly winds promoted the development of a surface Ekman layer that enhances the offshore advection of plume waters. The steep topography in the vicinity of the MR Delta was a favorable condition for that process. When the MR plume was subject to a full-blown scenario (realistically-forced experiment nested within a large-scale model), complex interactions between wind-driven and eddy-driven dynamics determined the fate of the plume waters. Offshore removal is a frequent plume pathway, and the offshore transport can be as large as the wind-driven shelf transport. The offshore pathways depend on the position of the eddies near the shelf edge, their life span and the formation of eddy pairs that generate coherent cross-shelf flows. Strong eddy-plume interactions were observed when the Loop Current (LC) system impinged against the shelfbreak, causing the formation of coherent, narrow low-salinity bands that extended toward the Gulf interior. The offshore transport of MR water is a year-round process, but the interactions between the MR plume and the LC system have large inter-annual variability. Plume to LC interactions are determined by episodic northward intrusions of the LC system in the NGoM. The interactions are dictated by the proximity of the LC system to the MR Delta and by wind effects. On average, plume to LC interactions correspond to ~ 12 % of the year-round, total freshwater transport near the MR Delta, but this percentage can go up to 30 % in individual years. At the time of the plume to LC interactions, an average value of LC freshwater entrainment was estimated to be ~ 4,150 m3 s-1. The findings presented here are a major contribution toward the understanding of the cross-marginal and basin-wide transport of MR waters by a large-scale current system, and the connectivity to remote regions, such as the South Florida region and the Florida Keys.

Keywords

Mississippi River plume; Loop Current; Gulf of Mexico; eddy interactions; HYCOM; numerical modeling

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