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A reduced-gravity, primitive-equation, upper-ocean general circulation model is used to study the mean water pathways in the North Pacific subtropical and tropical ocean. The model features an explicit physical representation of the surface mixed layer, realistic basin geometry, observed wind and heat flux forcing, and a horizontal grid-stretching technique and a vertical sigma coordinate to obtain a realistic simulation of the subtropical/tropical circulation. Velocity fields, and isopycnal and trajectory analyses are used to understand the mean flow of mixed layer and thermocline waters between the subtropics and Tropics.

Subtropical/tropical water pathways are not simply direct meridional routes; the existence of vigorous zonal current systems obviously complicates the picture. In the surface mixed layer, upwelled equatorial waters flow into the subtropical gyre mainly through the midlatitude western boundary current (the model Kuroshio). There is additionally an interior ocean pathway, through the Subtropical Countercurrent (an eastward flow across the middle of the subtropical gyre), that directly feeds subtropical subduction sites. Below the mixed layer, the water pathways in the subtropical thermocline essentially reflect the anticyclonic gyre circulation where we find that the model subtropical gyre separates into two circulation centers. The surface circulation also features a double-cell pattern, with the poleward cell centered at about 30°N and the equatorward component contained between 15° and 25°N. In addition, thermocline waters that can be traced to subtropical subduction sites move toward the Tropics almost zonally across the basin, succeeding in flowing toward the equator only along relatively narrow north–south conduits. The low-latitude western boundary currents serve as the main southward circuit for the subducted subtropical thermocline water. However, the model does find a direct flow of thermocline water into the Tropics through the ocean interior, confined to the far western Pacific (away from the low-latitude western boundary currents) across 10°N. This interior pathway is found just to the west of a recirculating gyre in and just below the mixed layer in the northeastern Tropics. This equatorward interior flow and a flow that can be traced directly to the western boundary are then swept eastward by the deeper branches of the North Equatorial Countercurrent, finally penetrating to the equator in the central and eastern Pacific. Most of these results are consistent with available observations and recently published theoretical and idealized numerical experiments, although the interior pathway of subtropical thermocline water into the Tropics found in this experiment is not apparent in other published numerical simulations.

Potential vorticity dynamics are useful in explaining the pathways taken by subtropical thermocline water as it flows into the Tropics. In particular, a large-scale zonally oriented “island” of homogenous potential vorticity, whose signature is determined by thin isopycnal layers in the central tropical Pacific along about 10°N, is dynamically linked to a circulation that does not flow directly from the subtropics to the Tropics. This large-scale potential vorticity feature helps to explain the circuitous pathways of the subducted subtropical thermocline waters as they approach the equator. Consequently, waters must first flow westward to the western boundary north of these closed potential vorticity contours and then mostly move southward through the low-latitude western boundary currents, flow eastward with the North Equatorial Countercurrent, and finally equatorward to join the Equatorial Undercurrent in the thermocline.