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Zhongxiang Zhao

Principal Oceanographer





Department Affiliation

Ocean Physics


B.S. Physics, Shandong University, 1994

Ph.D. Oceanography, University of Delaware, 2004


Monitoring Global Ocean Heat Content Changes by Internal Tide Oceanic Tomography

This study will obtain a 20-year-long record of global ocean heat content changes from 1995–2014 with a method called Internal tide oceanic tomography (ITOT), in which the satellite altimetry data are used to precisely measure travel times for long-range internal tides.

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29 Jul 2016

Ocean Heat Content (OHC) is a key indicator of global climate variability and change. However, it is a great challenge to observe OHC on a global scale. Observations with good coverage in space and time are only available in the last 10 years with the maturing of the Argo profiling float array. This study will obtain a 20-year-long record of global OHC changes from 1995–2014 with a method called Internal tide oceanic tomography (ITOT), in which the satellite altimetry data are used to precisely measure travel times for long-range internal tides. Just like in acoustic tomography, these travel times are analyzed to infer changes in OHC. This analysis will double the 10 years of time series available from Argo floats. More importantly, ITOT will provide an independent long-term, low-cost, environmentally-friendly observing system for global OHC changes. Since ocean warming contributes significantly to sea level rise, which has significant consequences to low-lying coastal regions, these observations have the potential for direct societal benefits. The project will communicate some of its results directly to the public. The team will make an educational animation showing how ocean warming is measured and how the novel ITOT technique works from the vantage point of space. This animation will be played for students visiting the lab, and in science talks and festivals in local K-12 schools. In addition, three summer undergraduate students will be trained in data analysis and interpretation, and poster presentation.

The analysis technique to be applied over the global ocean in this project is based on the preliminary regional analysis already conducted by this team. About 60 satellite-years of altimeter data from 1995-2014 will be analyzed. Specifically, it will (1) quantify annual variability, interannual variability, and bidecadal trend in global M2 and K1 internal tides, (2) construct the conversion function from the internal tide's travel time changes to OHC changes, and (3) construct a record of 20-year-long global OHC changes, and assess uncertainties using Argo measurements. The ultimate goal for this project is to develop the ITOT technique for future global OHC monitoring. This will improve our understanding of the temporal and spatial variability of global OHC, particularly in combination with in situ measurements from Argo floats, XBTs, and WOCE full-depth hydrography. The ITOT observations will provide useful constraints to ECCO2. The internal tide models may be used to correct internal tide noise in the Argo and XBT measurements. In addition, the monthly and yearly internal tide fields produced will provide constraints to global high-resolution, eddy-permitting numerical models of internal tides.


2000-present and while at APL-UW

Climate process team on internal-wave driven ocean mixing

MacKinnon, J.A., Z. Zhao, C.B. Whalen, and 32 others "Climate process team on internal-wave driven ocean mixing," Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 98, 2429-2454, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-16-0030.1, 2017.

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1 Nov 2017

Recent advances in our understanding of internal-wave driven turbulent mixing in the ocean interior are summarized. New parameterizations for global climate ocean models, and their climate impacts, are introduced.

Diapycnal mixing plays a primary role in the thermodynamic balance of the ocean and, consequently, in oceanic heat and carbon uptake and storage. Though observed mixing rates are on average consistent with values required by inverse models, recent attention has focused on the dramatic spatial variability, spanning several orders of magnitude, of mixing rates in both the upper and deep ocean. Away from ocean boundaries, the spatio-temporal patterns of mixing are largely driven by the geography of generation, propagation and dissipation of internal waves, which supply much of the power for turbulent mixing. Over the last five years and under the auspices of US CLIVAR, a NSF- and NOAA-supported Climate Process Team has been engaged in developing, implementing and testing dynamics-based parameterizations for internal-wave driven turbulent mixing in global ocean models. The work has primarily focused on turbulence 1) near sites of internal tide generation, 2) in the upper ocean related to wind-generated near inertial motions, 3) due to internal lee waves generated by low-frequency mesoscale flows over topography, and 4) at ocean margins. Here we review recent progress, describe the tools developed, and discuss future directions.

Semidiurnal internal tide energy fluxes and their variability in a Global Ocean Model and moored observations

Ansong, J.K., and 10 others including Z. Zhao, "Semidiurnal internal tide energy fluxes and their variability in a Global Ocean Model and moored observations," J. Geophys. Res., 122, 1882-1900, doi:10.1002/2016JC012184, 2017.

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1 Mar 2017

We examine the temporal means and variability of the semidiurnal internal tide energy fluxes in 1/25° global simulations of the Hybrid Coordinate Ocean Model (HYCOM) and in a global archive of 79 historical moorings. Low-frequency flows, a major cause of internal tide variability, have comparable kinetic energies at the mooring sites in model and observations. The computed root-mean-square (RMS) variability of the energy flux is large in both model and observations and correlates positively with the time-averaged flux magnitude. Outside of strong generation regions, the normalized RMS variability (the RMS variability divided by the mean) is nearly independent of the flux magnitudes in the model, and of order 23% or more in both the model and observations. The spatially averaged flux magnitudes in observations and the simulation agree to within a factor of about 1.4 and 2.4 for vertical mode-1 and mode-2, respectively. The difference in energy flux computed from the full-depth model output versus model output subsampled at mooring instrument depths is small. The global historical archive is supplemented with six high-vertical resolution moorings from the Internal Waves Across the Pacific (IWAP) experiment. The model fluxes agree more closely with the high-resolution IWAP fluxes than with the historical mooring fluxes. The high variability in internal tide energy fluxes implies that internal tide fluxes computed from short observational records should be regarded as realizations of a highly variable field, not as "means" that are indicative of conditions at the measurement sites over all time.

Long-range propagation and associated variability of internal tides in the South China Sea

Xu, Z., K. Liu, B. Yin, Z. Zhao, Y. Wang, and Q. Li, "Long-range propagation and associated variability of internal tides in the South China Sea," J. Geophys. Res., 121, 8268-8286, doi:10.1002/2016JC012105, 2016.

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1 Nov 2016

The variability of internal tides during their generation and long-range propagation in the South China Sea (SCS) is investigated by driving a high-resolution numerical model. The present study clarifies the notably different processes of generation, propagation, and dissipation between diurnal and semidiurnal internal tides. Internal tides in the SCS originate from multiple source sites, among which the Luzon Strait is dominant, and contributes approximately 90% and 74% of the baroclinic energy for M2 and K1, respectively. To the west of the Luzon Strait, local generation of K1 internal tides inside the SCS is more energetic than the M2 tides. Diurnal and semidiurnal internal tides from the Luzon Strait radiate into the SCS in a north-south asymmetry but with different patterns because of the complex two-ridge system. The tidal beams can travel across the deep basin and finally arrive at the Vietnam coast and Nansha Island more than 1000–1500 km away. During propagation, M2 internal tides maintain a southwestward direction, whereas K1 exhibit complicated wave fields because of the superposition of waves from local sources and island scattering effects. After significant dissipation within the Luzon Strait, the remaining energy travels into the SCS and reduces by more than 90% over a distance of ~1000 km. Inside the SCS, the K1 internal tides with long crests and flat beam angles are more influenced by seafloor topographical features and thus undergo apparent dissipation along the entire path, whereas the prominent dissipation of M2 internal tides only occurs after their arrival at Zhongsha Island.

More Publications

Acoustics Air-Sea Interaction & Remote Sensing Center for Environmental & Information Systems Center for Industrial & Medical Ultrasound Electronic & Photonic Systems Ocean Engineering Ocean Physics Polar Science Center