Campus Map

Zhongxiang Zhao

Principal Oceanographer





Department Affiliation

Ocean Physics


B.S. Physics, Shandong University, 1994

Ph.D. Oceanography, University of Delaware, 2004


Air–Sea Momentum Flux in Tropical Cyclones

The intensity of a tropical cyclone is influenced by two competing physical processes at the air–sea interface. It strengthens by drawing thermal energy from the underlying warm ocean but weakens due to the drag of rough ocean surface. These processes change dramatically as the wind speed increases above 30 m/s.

More Info

30 Mar 2018

The project is driven by the following science questions: (1) How important are equilibrium-range waves in controlling the air-sea momentum flux in tropical cyclones? We hypothesize that for wind speeds higher than 30 m/s the stress on the ocean surface is larger than the equilibrium-range wave breaking stress. (2) How does the wave breaking rate vary with wind speed and the complex surface wave field? At moderate wind speeds the wave breaking rate increases with increasing speed. Does this continue at extreme high winds? (3) Can we detect acoustic signatures of sea spray at high winds? Measurements of sea spray in tropical cyclones are very rare. We will seek for the acoustic signatures of spray droplets impacting the ocean surface. (4) What are the processes controlling the air-sea momentum flux?

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.

More Info

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

Accuracy assessment of global internal-tide models using satellite altimetry

Carrere, L., and 12 others including Z. Zhao, "Accuracy assessment of global internal-tide models using satellite altimetry," Ocean Sci., 17, 147-180, doi:10.5194/os-17-147-2021, 2021.

More Info

19 Jan 2021

Altimeter measurements are corrected for several geophysical parameters in order to access ocean signals of interest, like mesoscale or sub-mesoscale variability. The ocean tide is one of the most critical corrections due to the amplitude of the tidal elevations and to the aliasing phenomena of high-frequency signals into the lower-frequency band, but the internal-tide signatures at the ocean surface are not yet corrected globally.

Internal tides can have a signature of several centimeters at the surface with wavelengths of about 50–250 km for the first mode and even smaller scales for higher-order modes. The goals of the upcoming Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission and other high-resolution ocean measurements make the correction of these small-scale signals a challenge, as the correction of all tidal variability becomes mandatory to access accurate measurements of other oceanic signals.

In this context, several scientific teams are working on the development of new internal-tide models, taking advantage of the very long altimeter time series now available, which represent an unprecedented and valuable global ocean database. The internal-tide models presented here focus on the coherent internal-tide signal and they are of three types: empirical models based upon analysis of existing altimeter missions, an assimilative model and a three-dimensional hydrodynamic model.

A detailed comparison and validation of these internal-tide models is proposed using existing satellite altimeter databases. The analysis focuses on the four main tidal constituents: M2, K1, O1 and S2. The validation process is based on a statistical analysis of multi-mission altimetry including Jason-2 and Cryosphere Satellite-2 data. The results show a significant altimeter variance reduction when using internal-tide corrections in all ocean regions where internal tides are generating or propagating. A complementary spectral analysis also gives some estimation of the performance of each model as a function of wavelength and some insight into the residual non-stationary part of internal tides in the different regions of interest. This work led to the implementation of a new internal-tide correction (ZARON'one) in the next geophysical data records version-F (GDR-F) standards.

Disintegration of the K1 internal tide in the South China Sea due to parametric subharmonic instability

Liu, K., and Z. Zhao, "Disintegration of the K1 internal tide in the South China Sea due to parametric subharmonic instability," J. Phys. Oceanogr., 50, 3605–3622, doi:10.1175/JPO-D-19-0320.1, 2020.

More Info

1 Dec 2020

The disintegration of the equatorward-propagating K1 internal tide in the South China Sea (SCS) by parametric subharmonic instability (PSI) at its critical latitude of 14.52°N is investigated numerically. The multiple-source generation and long-range propagation of K1 internal tides are successfully reproduced. Using equilibrium analysis, the internal wave field near the critical latitude is found to experience two quasi-steady states, between which the subharmonic waves develop constantly. The simulated subharmonic waves agree well with classic PSI theoretical prediction. The PSI-induced near-inertial waves are of half the K1 frequency and dominantly high modes, the vertical scales ranging from 50 to 180 m in the upper ocean. From an energy perspective, PSI mainly occurs in the critical latitudinal zone from 13–15°N. In this zone, the incident internal tide loses ~14% energy in the mature state of PSI. PSI triggers a mixing elevation of O(10-5 – 10-4 m2/s) in the upper ocean at the critical latitude, which is several times larger than the background value. The contribution of PSI to the internal tide energy loss and associated enhanced mixing may differ regionally and is closely dependent on the intensity and duration of background internal tide. The results elucidate the far-field dissipation mechanism by PSI in connecting interior mixing with remotely generated K1 internal tides in the Luzon Strait.

Observations of the low-mode internal tide and its interaction with mesoscale flow south of the Azores

Löb, J., J. Köhler, C. Mertens, M. Walter, Z. Li, J.-S. von Storch, Z. Zhao, and M. Rhein, "Observations of the low-mode internal tide and its interaction with mesoscale flow south of the Azores," J. Geophys. Res., 125, doi:10.1029/2019JC015879, 2020.

More Info

1 Nov 2020

Understanding the temporal variability of internal tides plays a crucial role in identifying sources and sinks of energy in the ocean. Using a 10‐month‐long time series from moored instruments inside a tidal beam south of the Azores, the magnitude and the underlying causes of temporal variability in the first two modes of the internal tide energy flux was studied. We analyzed changes of the direction and coherence of the energy flux, its modal structure, and the impact of two eddies. Semidiurnal energy fluxes were further compared with estimates from a 1/10° ocean global circulation model, as well as with fluxes derived from satellite altimetry. All energy fluxes correlate reasonably well in direction, deviations from its fixed phase relation to astronomical forcing, and modal composition while model and satellite underestimate the total energy flux. A pronounced damping of the in situ fluxes coincides with the passing of two eddies. In the presence of a surface‐intensified eddy, the coherent part of the energy flux in the first two modes is lowered by more than 40%, a subsurface eddy coincides with a decrease of the energy flux mainly in the second mode. These observations support the hypothesis that eddy interactions increase the incoherent part of the energy flux and transfer energy from low modes into higher modes, which can lead to increased local dissipation. It remains an open question how much of the energy converted from lower to higher modes results in local dissipation, a crucial part in creating energetically consistent ocean‐climate models.

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