Langmuir circulation, take 2

Attempt at mechanistic understanding of Langmuir circulation.

After  complaining about how I didn’t have mechanistic understanding of Langmuir circulation recently, and how I was too lazy to do a real literature search on it, my friend Kristin sent me a paper that might shed light on the issue. And it did! So here is what I think I understand (and please feel free to jump in and comment if you have a better explanation).

First, let’s recap what we are talking about. My friend Leela (and it was so nice to have her visit!!!) and I observed this:

Long rows of foam on the surface of the fjord, more or less aligned with the direction of the wind (we couldn’t tell for sure since we were on a moving boat, and since it was a tourist cruise we couldn’t ask them to stand still for a minute to satisfy our oceanographic curiosity). Foam is – and so much makes sense – accumulated in regions of surface convergence.

But let’s see. The explanation that Kristin forwarded me is from the paper “Upper ocean mixing” by J.N. Moum and W.D. Smyth for Academic Press Encyclopedia of Ocean Sciences, 2000According to my understanding of their paper and others, Langmuir circulation is related to Stokes drift.

Stokes drift is the small current in the direction of wave propagation that is caused by orbital wave motions not being completely closed (even though they are as a first order explanation, and that’s what you always learn when you think about rubber ducks not being laterally moved by waves).

As the wave orbital motions decrease with depth, there is a shear in the Stokes drift, with strongest velocities being found at the surface. At the same time, if there are small disturbances in the wind field, there are small inhomogeneities in the resulting surface current, hence shear that generates vertical vorticity.

The combination of horizontal and vertical vorticity causes counterrotating vortices at the ocean surface. The convergences between two adjacent rows concentrate the wind-driven surface current into a jet at the convergence, hence providing a positive feedback.

Voila: Stokes drift!

Langmuir circulation

We think we observed Langmuir circulation, but we don’t understand the mechanism causing it.

Recently, my friend Leela came to visit Bergen and we went on a fjord cruise to make the most of a sunny October day. We observed foam streaks on the fjord. The structures were long and persistent, and being the oceanographers we are, of course we knew that they had to have been caused by Langmuir circulation.

Langmuir circulation on Østerfjorden, Norway.

But then we started wondering about the mechanism driving the Langmuir circulation. Textbook knowledge tells us that Langmuir cells are spiraling rows with convergences (the foamy stripes) and divergences (in between the foamy stripes) at the surface. They are, according to common knowledge, caused by wind that has persistently blown over the surface for more than some 10 hours, and by Ekman processes. Plus there might be some interaction with waves.

IMG_5674
More Langmuir circulation

But that’s about where my knowledge ends, and I have absolutely no mechanistic understanding of Langmuir circulation. Literature research was unsuccessful (at least in the period of time I was willing to spend on this), a quick poll of my colleagues didn’t help, so now I am turning to you, dear readers: Do you have a simple mechanism for me that explains Langmuir circulation? Please help!