Ocean mixing affects global climate and the marine biosphere because it is linked to the ocean's ability to store and transport heat and nutrients. Observations have constrained the magnitude of upper ocean mixing associated with certain processes, but mixing rates measured directly are significantly lower than those inferred from budget analyses, suggesting that other processes may play an important role. The winds associated with tropical cyclones are known to lead to localized mixing of the upper ocean, but the hypothesis that tropical cyclones are important mixing agents at the global scale has not been tested. Here we calculate the effect of tropical cyclones on surface ocean temperatures by comparing surface temperatures before and after storm passage, and use these results to calculate the vertical mixing induced by tropical cyclone activity. Our results indicate that tropical cyclones are responsible for significant cooling and vertical mixing of the surface ocean in tropical regions. Assuming that all the heat that is mixed downwards is balanced by heat transport towards the poles, we calculate that approximately 15 per cent of peak ocean heat transport may be associated with the vertical mixing induced by tropical cyclones. Furthermore, our analyses show that the magnitude of this mixing is strongly related to sea surface temperature, indicating that future changes in tropical sea surface temperatures may have significant effects on ocean circulation and ocean heat transport that are not currently accounted for in climate models.
ASJC Scopus subject areas