Floating oil, plastics, and marine organisms are continually redistributed by ocean surface currents. Prediction of their resulting distribution on the surface is a fundamental, long-standing, and practically important problem. The dominant paradigm is dispersion within the dynamical context of a nondivergent flow: objects initially close together will on average spread apart but the area of surface patches of material does not change. Although this paradigm is likely valid at mesoscales, larger than 100 km in horizontal scale, recent theoretical studies of submesoscales (less than ∼10 km) predict strong surface convergences and downwelling associated with horizontal density fronts and cyclonic vortices. Here we show that such structures can dramatically concentrate floating material. More than half of an array of ∼200 surface drifters covering ∼20 × 20 km2 converged into a 60 × 60 m region within a week, a factor of more than 105 decrease in area, before slowly dispersing. As predicted, the convergence occurred at density fronts and with cyclonic vorticity. A zipperlike structure may play an important role. Cyclonic vorticity and vertical velocity reached 0.001 s-1 and 0.01 ms-1, respectively, which is much larger than usually inferred. This suggests a paradigm in which nearby objects form submesoscale clusters, and these clusters then spread apart. Together, these effects set both the overall extent and the finescale texture of a patch of floating material. Material concentrated at submesoscale convergences can create unique communities of organisms, amplify impacts of toxic material, and create opportunities to more efficiently recover such material.
Keywords: dispersion; eddy; ocean; submesoscale; vertical velocity.
Copyright © 2018 the Author(s). Published by PNAS.