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Ren-Chieh Lien

Senior Principal Oceanographer

Affiliate Professor, Oceanography





Research Interests

Turbulence, Internal waves, Vortical motions, Surface mixed layer and bottom boundary layer dynamics, Internal solitary waves, Small-scale vorticity, Inertial waves


Dr. Lien is a physical oceanographer specializing in internal waves, vortical motions, and turbulence mixing in the upper ocean and their effects on upper ocean heat, salinity, momentum, and energy budgets. His primary scientific research interests include: (1) upper ocean internal waves and turbulence, especially in tropical Pacific and Indian oceans, (2) strongly nonlinear internal solitary wave energetics and breaking mechanisms, (3) small-scale vortical motions, and (4) bottom boundary layer turbulence. He is especially interested in understanding the modulation of internal waves and turbulence mixing by large-scale processes, as well as the effects of small-scale processes and large-scale flows.

One of Dr. Lien most important findings is the strong modulation of turbulence mixing by large-scale equatorial processes, such as tropical instability waves and Kelvin waves, in the eastern equatorial Pacific. He is especially interested in small-scale, potential vorticity motions — the vortical mode, which operates on the same scale as internal waves — and their effects on turbulence mixing and stirring. Lien has led sea-going experiments in the Pacific and Indian oceans and the South China Sea, using a variety of instruments including microstructure profilers, Lagrangian floats, EM-APEX floats, and moorings. He also developed a real-time towed CTD chain system, designed to study small-scale water mass variability in the upper ocean at a vertical and horizontal resolution of O(1 m).

Lien mentors and supervises masters and doctoral students and postdocs. His research and experiments have been funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Department Affiliation

Ocean Physics


B.S. Marine Science, Chinese Culture University, 1978

M.S. Physical Oceanography, University of Hawaii, 1986

Ph.D. Physical Oceanography, University of Hawaii, 1990


Lateral Mixing

Small scale eddies and internal waves in the ocean mix water masses laterally, as well as vertically. This multi-investigator project aims to study the physics of this mixing by combining dye dispersion studies with detailed measurements of the velocity, temperature and salinity field during field experiments in 2011 and 2012.

1 Sep 2012


2000-present and while at APL-UW

Simulation of deep cycle turbulence by a global ocean general circulation model

Pei, S., T. Shinoda, W. Wang, and R.-C. Lien, "Simulation of deep cycle turbulence by a global ocean general circulation model," Geophys. Res. Lett., 47, e2020GL088384, doi:10.1029/2020GL088384, 2020.

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16 Aug 2020

Deep cycle turbulence (DCT) is a diurnally oscillating turbulence that penetrates into a stratified shear layer below the surface mixed layer, which is often observed in the eastern Pacific and Atlantic above the Equatorial Undercurrent (EUC). Here we present the simulation of DCT by a global ocean general circulation model (OGCM) for the first time. As the k–ε vertical mixing scheme is used in the OGCM, the simulation of observed DCT structure based on in situ microstructure measurements can be explicitly demonstrated. The simulated DCT is found in all equatorial ocean basins, and its characteristics agree very well with observations. Zonal and meridional variations of DCT in the entire equatorial Pacific and Atlantic are described through constructing the composite diurnal cycle. In the central Pacific where the maximum shear associated with EUC is deep, the separation of DCT from the surface mixed layer is much more prominent than other areas.

Formation of recirculation cores in convectively breaking internal solitary waves of depression shoaling over gentle slopes in the South China Sea

Rivera-Rosario, G., P.J. Diamessis, R.-C. Lien, K.G. Lamb, and G.N. Thomsen, "Formation of recirculation cores in convectively breaking internal solitary waves of depression shoaling over gentle slopes in the South China Sea," J. Phys. Oceanogr., 50, 1137-1157, doi:10.1175/JPO-D-19-0036.1, 2020.

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1 May 2020

The formation of a recirculating subsurface core in an internal solitary wave (ISW) of depression, shoaling over realistic bathymetry, is explored through fully nonlinear and nonhydrostatic two-dimensional simulations. The computational approach is based on a high-resolution/accuracy deformed spectral multidomain penalty-method flow solver, which employs the recorded bathymetry, background current, and stratification profile in the South China Sea. The flow solver is initialized using a solution of the fully nonlinear Dubreil–Jacotin–Long equation. During shoaling, convective breaking precedes core formation as the rear steepens and the trough decelerates, allowing heavier fluid to plunge forward, forming a trapped core. This core-formation mechanism is attributed to a stretching of a near-surface background vorticity layer. Since the sign of the vorticity is opposite to that generated by the propagating wave, only subsurface recirculating cores can form. The onset of convective breaking is visualized, and the sensitivity of the core properties to changes in the initial wave, near-surface background shear, and bottom slope is quantified. The magnitude of the near-surface vorticity determines the size of the convective-breaking region, and the rapid increase of local bathymetric slope accelerates core formation. If the amplitude of the initial wave is increased, the subsequent convective-breaking region increases in size. The simulations are guided by field data and capture the development of the recirculating subsurface core. The analyzed parameter space constitutes a baseline for future three-dimensional simulations focused on characterizing the turbulent flow engulfed within the convectively unstable ISW.

Energy sinks for lee waves in shear flow

Kunze, E., and R.-C. Lien, "Energy sinks for lee waves in shear flow," J. Phys. Oceanogr., 49,2851-2865, doi:10.1175/JPO-D-19-0052.1, 2019.

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1 Nov 2019

Microstructure measurements in Drake Passage and on the flanks of Kerguelen Plateau find turbulent dissipation rates ε on average factors of 2–3 smaller than linear lee-wave generation predictions, as well as a factor of 3 smaller than the predictions of a well-established parameterization based on finescale shear and strain. Here, the possibility that these discrepancies are a result of conservation of wave action E/ωL = E/|kU| is explored. Conservation of wave action will transfer a fraction of the lee-wave radiation back to the mean flow if the waves encounter weakening currents U, where the intrinsic or Lagrangian frequency ωL = |kU| ↓ |f| and k the along-stream horizontal wavenumber, where kUk ⋅ V. The dissipative fraction of power that is lost to turbulence depends on the Doppler shift of the intrinsic frequency between generation and breaking, hence on the topographic height spectrum and bandwidth N/f. The partition between dissipation and loss to the mean flow is quantified for typical topographic height spectral shapes and N/f ratios found in the abyssal ocean under the assumption that blocking is local in wavenumber. Although some fraction of lee-wave generation is always dissipated in a rotating fluid, lee waves are not as large a sink for balanced energy or as large a source for turbulence as previously suggested. The dissipative fraction is 0.44–0.56 for topographic spectral slopes and buoyancy frequencies typical of the deep Southern Ocean, insensitive to flow speed U and topographic splitting. Lee waves are also an important mechanism for redistributing balanced energy within their generating bottom current.

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