Frontal Dynamics at the Edge of the Columbia River Plume

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Ocean Modelling

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In the tidal ebb-cycle at the Mouth of the Columbia River, strong density and velocity fronts sometimes form perpendicular to the coast at the edges of the freshwater plume. They are distinct from previously analyzed fronts at the offshore western edge of the plume that evolve as a gravity-wave bore. We present simulation results to demonstrate their occurrence and investigate the mechanisms behind their frontogenesis and evolution. Tidal velocities on average ranged between 1.5 m s in flood and 2.5 m s in ebb during the brief hindcast period. The tidal fronts exhibit strong horizontal velocity and buoyancy gradients on a scale  ∼ 100 m in width with normalized relative vorticity (ζz/f) values reaching up to 50. We specifically focus on the front on the northern edge of the plume and examine the evolution in plume characteristics such as its water mass gradients, horizontal and vertical velocity structure, vertical velocity, turbulent vertical mixing, horizontal propagation, cross-front momentum balance, and Lagrangian frontogenetic tendencies in both buoyancy and velocity gradients. Advective frontogenesis leads to a very sharp front where lateral mixing near the grid-resolution limit arrests its further contraction. The negative vorticity within the front is initiated by the positive bottom drag curl on the north side of the Columbia estuary and against the north jetty. Because of the large negative vorticity and horizontal vorticity gradient, centrifugal and lateral shear instability begins to develop along the front, but frontal fragmentation and decay set in only after the turn of the tide because of the briefness of the ebb interval.