Geothermal heating, diapycnal mixing and the abyssal circulation
Abstract. The dynamical role of geothermal heating in abyssal circulation is reconsidered using three independent arguments. First, we show that a uniform geothermal heat flux close to the observed average (86.4 mW m−2) supplies as much heat to near-bottom water as a diapycnal mixing rate of ~10−4 m2 s−1 – the canonical value thought to be responsible for the magnitude of the present-day abyssal circulation. This parity raises the possibility that geothermal heating could have a dynamical impact of the same order. Second, we estimate the magnitude of geothermally-induced circulation with the density-binning method (Walin, 1982), applied to the observed thermohaline structure of Levitus (1998). The method also allows to investigate the effect of realistic spatial variations of the flux obtained from heatflow measurements and classical theories of lithospheric cooling. It is found that a uniform heatflow forces a transformation of ~6 Sv at σ4=45.90, which is of the same order as current best estimates of AABW circulation. This transformation can be thought of as the geothermal circulation in the absence of mixing and is very similar for a realistic heatflow, albeit shifted towards slightly lighter density classes. Third, we use a general ocean circulation model in global configuration to perform three sets of experiments: (1) a thermally homogenous abyssal ocean with and without uniform geothermal heating; (2) a more stratified abyssal ocean subject to (i) no geothermal heating, (ii) a constant heat flux of 86.4 mW m−2, (iii) a realistic, spatially varying heat flux of identical global average; (3) experiments (i) and (iii) with enhanced vertical mixing at depth. Geothermal heating and diapycnal mixing are found to interact non-linearly through the density field, with geothermal heating eroding the deep stratification supporting a downward diffusive flux, while diapycnal mixing acts to map near-surface temperature gradients onto the bottom, thereby altering the density structure that supports a geothermal circulation. For strong vertical mixing rates, geothermal heating enhances the AABW cell by about 15% (2.5 Sv) and heats up the last 2000 m by ~0.15°C, reaching a maximum of by 0.3°C in the deep North Pacific. Prescribing a realistic spatial distribution of the heat flux acts to enhance this temperature rise at mid-depth and reduce it at great depth, producing a more modest increase in overturning than in the uniform case. In all cases, however, poleward heat transport increases by ~10% in the Southern Ocean. The three approaches converge to the conclusion that geothermal heating is an important actor of abyssal dynamics, and should no longer be neglected in oceanographic studies.