Rates and mechanisms of water mass transformation in the Labrador Sea as inferred from tracer observations

Samar Khatiwala, Peter Schlosser, Martin Visbeck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Time series of hydrographic and transient tracer (3H and 3He) observations from the central Labrador Sea collected between 1991 and 1996 are presented to document the complex changes in the tracer fields as a result of variations in convective activity during the 1990s. Between 1991 and 1993, as atmospheric forcing intensified, convection penetrated to progressively increasing depths, reaching ~2300 m in the winter of 1993. Over that period the potential temperature (χ)/salinity (S) properties of Labrador Sea Water stayed nearly constant as surface cooling and downward mixing of freshwater was balanced by excavating and upward mixing of the warmer and saltier Northeast Atlantic Deep Water. It is shown that the net change in heat content of the water column (150-2500 m) between 1991 and 1993 was negligible compared to the estimated mean heat loss over that period (110 W m..2), implying that the lateral convergence of heat into the central Labrador Sea nearly balances the atmospheric cooling on a surprisingly short timescale. Interestingly, the 3H-3He age of Labrador Sea Water increased during this period of intensifying convection. Starting in 1995, winters were milder and convection was restricted to the upper 800 m. Between 1994 and 1996, the evolution of 3H-3He age is similar to that of a stagnant water body. In contrast, the increase in χ and S over that period implies exchange of tracers with the boundaries via both an eddy-induced overturning circulation and along-isopycnal stirring by eddies [with an exchange coefficient of O(500 m2 s-1)]. The authors construct a freshwater budget for the Labrador Sea and quantitatively demonstrate that sea ice meltwater is the dominant cause of the large annual cycle of salinity in the Labrador Sea, both on the shelf and the interior. It is shown that the transport of freshwater by eddies into the central Labrador Sea (~140 cm between March and September) can readily account for the observed seasonal freshening. Finally, the authors discuss the role of the eddy-induced overturning circulation with regard to transport and disperal of the newly ventilated Labrador Sea Water to the boundary current system and compare its strenght (2-3 Sv) to the diagnosed buoyancy-forced formation rate of Labrador Sea Water.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)666-686
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Physical Oceanography
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography


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