I’m a geophysical fluid dynamicist. I use theory and numerical modeling to understand the dynamics of the vast range of motions, in both the ocean and the atmosphere, and their collective effect in Earth’s climate.


Ocean

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current
Credit: NASA/JPL

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) is the largest current in the ocean. The geometry of the Southern Ocean enables the ACC to connect all ocean basins. ACC plays an integral role in the global climate, e.g., by setting up the meridional overturning circulation and controlling the meridional heat transfer in the ocean.

The winds over the Southern Ocean that mainly drive the ACC have been strengthening and shifting polewards due to climate-change and ozone depletion.

I am interested on how the ocean responds to climate-change forcing at different time and length scales. For example, how the mesoscale flow features have been changing due to changes in the atmospheric circulation, and also how does the strength of the ACC respond to the increasing strength of westerly winds over the Southern Ocean. In particular, I’ve been trying to delineate the role of barotropic and baroclinic processes that are involved in the ACC’s response to changing winds.

Climate models cannot resolve all length scales of oceanic fluid motions and, therefore, they rely on parametrizing the collective effect the small-scale unresolved motions have on the larger scales that the models resolve. Understanding the underlying dynamics is crucial for developing and improving these parameterizations.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between theory and simulation in climate science, my work has been focusing on probing the dynamics by which the ocean mesoscale eddies and bathymetric features interact with large-scale currents, like the ACC. I emphasize on understanding using theoretical tools aided with a series of conceptual models of increasing complexity, for example, quasi-geostrophic turbulence on a beta plane or a primitive equations-model with modest stratification in a channel.


Atmosphere

Planetary atmospheres self-organize into large-scale coherent structures that vary on time-scales much longer than those of the co-existing turbulent eddy motions. Prominent examples are the Earth’s subtropical and polar jet streams. Often these large-scale features are eddy driven, that is they get their energy from the turbulence they are surrounded by.

Earth's polar jet-stream
Credit: NASA GSFC

However, the dynamics of the coexistence of coherent large-scale features and turbulence is difficult to study because many standard techniques, such as classical stability analysis, are ineffective. These methods assume that a mean state exist in the absence of the fluctuations and also disregard the effect of these fluctuations on the mean state. This is not the case in planetary atmospheres where the mean state is inseparably connected with turbulence. Recent developments, some in my doctoral thesis, have broken through this impasse. The key is to study the Statistical State Dynamics (SSD) of the flow; i.e., the dynamics of the statistics themselves rather than of individual flow realizations. One aspect of SSD is a new type of stability theory that addresses mean flows in the presence of turbulent fluctuations.

I have been using SSD techniques to make analytic and numerical predictions regarding the symmetry breaking of homogeneous atmospheric turbulence and its self-organization to jets or large-scale coherent waves, the physical mechanism underlying this self-organization, the mechanism by which the large-scale structures equilibrate at finite amplitude, and also the co-existence of jets, large-scale waves, and turbulence.


Gas giants

Jupiter by Hubble; August 2019
Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon and M.H. Wong

With my collaborator Jeffrey Parker, we studied how magnetic fields in the interior of gas giants may interrupt the self-organization of planetary atmospheres into coherent zonal jets. Our results suggest that turbulent magnetic fluctuations when found in an environment with mean shear flows could, effectively, act as an additional viscosity on the mean flow itself. We called this phenomenon “magnetic viscosity.” Simple estimates reveal that this physical mechanism may provide a plausible explanation for the depth-extent of the jets on Jupiter and Saturn as was recently revealed by spacecrafts Juno and Cassini respectively.


Wall-bounded turbulent flows

Jupiter by Hubble; August 2019
Credit: A. Lozano-Durán

With my collaborator Adrian Lozano-Durán (and others), we have been studying the dynamics of very-large-scale roll–streak motions in three-dimensional flows in regions away from boundaries. The mechanism by which energy feeds from the large-scale motions back to the turbulent fluctuations, thus closing the loop in the self-sustained regeneration cycle of turbulence, remains outstanding. In an attempt to resolve the enigma, we recently demonstrated that the modal instabilities of the streaky coherent structures are not the main players involved in this energy transfer.