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Zhongxiang Zhao

Principal Oceanographer

Affiliate Associate Professor, Oceanography





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.

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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.

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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

Satellite evidence for strengthened M2 internal tides in the past 30 years

Zhao, Z., "Satellite evidence for strengthened M2 internal tides in the past 30 years," Geophys. Res. Lett., 50, doi:10.1029/2023GL105764, 2023.

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28 Dec 2023

Satellite altimetry sea surface height measurements from 1993 to 2022 are used to show the strengthened mode-1 M2 internal tides in the past 30 years. Two mode-1 M2 internal tide models M9509 and M1019 are constructed using the data in 1995–2009 and 2010–2019, respectively. The results show that the global mean M2 internal tides strengthened by 6% in energy. However, the internal tide strengthening is spatially inhomogeneous. Significantly strengthened internal tides are observed in a number of regions including the Aleutian Ridge and the Madagascar–Mascarene region. Weakened internal tides are observed in the central Pacific. On global average, M1019 leads M9509 by about 10° (20 min in time), suggesting that the propagation speed of M2 internal tides increased. M9509 and M1019 are evaluated using independent altimetry data. The results show that M9509 and M1019 perform better for the data in 1993–1994 and 2020–2022, respectively.

Mode-1 N2 internal tides observed by satellite altimetry

Zhao, Z., "Mode-1 N2 internal tides observed by satellite altimetry," Ocean Sci., 19, 1067-1082, doi:10.5194/os-19-1067-2023, 2023.

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13 Jul 2023

Satellite altimetry provides a unique technique for observing the sea surface height (SSH) signature of internal tides from space. Previous studies have constructed empirical internal tide models for the four largest constituents M2, S2, K1, and O1 by satellite altimetry. Yet no empirical models have been constructed for minor tidal constituents. In this study, we observe mode-1 N2 internal tides (the fifth largest constituent) using about 100 satellite years of SSH data from 1993 to 2019. We employ a recently developed mapping procedure that includes two rounds of plane wave analysis and a two-dimensional bandpass filter in between. The results show that mode-1 N2 internal tides have millimeter-scale SSH amplitudes. Model errors are estimated from background internal tides that are mapped using the same altimetry data but with a tidal period of 12.6074 h (N2 minus 3 min). The global mean error variance is about 25 % that of N2, suggesting that the mode-1 N2 internal tides can overcome model errors in some regions. We find that the N2 and M2 internal tides have similar spatial patterns and that the N2 amplitudes are about 20 % of the M2 amplitudes. Both features are determined by the N2 and M2 barotropic tides. The mode-1 N2 internal tides are observed to propagate hundreds to thousands of kilometers in the open ocean. The globally integrated N2 and M2 internal tide energies are 1.8 and 30.9 PJ, respectively. Their ratio of 5.8 % is larger than the theoretical value of 4 % because the N2 internal tides contain relatively larger model errors. Our mode-1 N2 internal tide model is evaluated using independent satellite altimetry data in 2020 and 2021. The results suggest that the model can make internal tide correction in regions where the model variance is greater than twice the error variance. This work demonstrates that minor internal tidal constituents can be observed using multiyear multi-satellite altimetry data and dedicated mapping techniques.

Detection of rain in tropical cyclones by underwater ambient sound

Zhao, Z., and E.A. D'Asaro, "Detection of rain in tropical cyclones by underwater ambient sound," J. Atmos. Ocean. Technol., 40, 987-1003, doi:10.1175/JTECH-D-22-0078.1, 2023.

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29 Jun 2023

Rain in tropical cyclones is studied using eight time series of underwater ambient sound at 40 Hz–50 kHz with wind speeds up to 45ms−1 beneath three tropical cyclones. At tropical cyclone wind speeds, rain- and wind-generated sound levels are comparable, so that rain cannot be detected by sound level alone. A rain detection algorithm based on the variations of 5–30 kHz sound levels with periods longer than 20 seconds and shorter than 30 minutes is proposed. Faster fluctuations (<20 s) are primarily due to wave breaking, and slower ones (>30 min) due to overall wind variations. Higher frequency sound (>30 kHz) is strongly attenuated by bubble clouds. This approach is supported by observations that, for wind speeds <40 m s-1, the variation in sound level is much larger than that expected from observed wind variations, and roughly comparable with that expected from rain variations. The hydrophone results are consistent with rain estimates by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite and with Stepped-Frequency Microwave Radiometer (SFMR) and radar estimates by surveillance flights. The observations indicate that the rain-generated sound fluctuations have broadband acoustic spectra centered around 10 kHz. Acoustically detected rain events usually last for a few minutes. The data used in this study are insufficient to produce useful estimation of rain rate from ambient sound, due to limited quantity and accuracy of the validation data. The frequency dependence of sound variations suggests that quantitative rainfall algorithms from ambient sound may be developed using multiple sound frequencies.

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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