Variability, instabilities, and eddies in a snowball ocean Academic Article uri icon


  • Oceanic variability and eddy dynamics during snowball Earth events, under a kilometer of ice and driven by a very weak geothermal heat flux, are studied using a high-resolution sector model centered at the equator, where previous studies have shown the ocean circulation to be most prominent. The solution is characterized by an energetic eddy field, equatorward-propagating zonal jets, and a strongly variable equatorial meridional overturning circulation (EMOC), on the order of tens of Sverdrups (Sv; 1 Sv 10(6) m(3) s(-1)), restricted to be very close to the equator. The ocean is well mixed vertically by convective mixing, and horizontal mixing rates by currents and eddies are similar to present-day values. There are two main opposite-sign zonal jets near the equator that are not eddy driven, together with multiple secondary eddy-driven jets off the equator. Barotropic stability analyses, the Lorenz energy cycle (LEC), and barotropic-to-baroclinic energy conversion rates together indicate that both baroclinic and barotropic instabilities serve as eddy-generating mechanisms. The LEC shows a dominant input into the mean available potential energy (APE) by geothermal heat flux and by surface ice melting and then transformation to eddy APE, to eddy kinetic energy, and finally to mean kinetic energy via eddy-jet interaction, similarly to the present-day atmosphere and unlike the present-day ocean. The EMOC variability is due to the interaction of warm plumes driven by geothermal heating that reach the ocean surface, leading to ice-melt events that change the stratification and, therefore, the EMOC. The results presented here may be relevant to the ocean dynamics of planetary ice-covered moons such as Europa and Enceladus.

publication date

  • January 1, 2016