On the coolest process in oceanography.

My favorite oceanographic process, as all of my students and many of my acquaintances know, is double-diffusive mixing. Look at how awesome it is:

Double-diffusive mixing happens because heat and salt’s molecular diffusion are very different: Heat diffuses about a factor 100 faster than salt. This can lead to curious phenomena: Bodies of water with a stable stratification in density will start to mix much more efficiently than one would have thought.

In the specific case of a stable density stratification with warm, salty water over cold, fresh water, finger-like structures form. Those structures are called “salt fingers”, the process is “salt fingering”.

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Salt fingering occuring with the red food dye acting as “salt”.

Even though salt fingers are tiny compared to the dimensions of the ocean, they still have a measurable effect on the oceanic stratification in the form of large-scale layers and stair cases, and not only the stratification in temperature and salinity, but also on nutrient availability in the subtropical gyres, for example, or on CO2 drawdown.

Over the next couple of posts, I will focus on double diffusive mixing, but less on the science and more on how it can be used in teaching. (If you want to know more about the science, there are tons of interesting papers around, for example my very first paper)

How to easily set up the stratification for the salt fingering process.

Setting up stratifications in tanks is a pain. Of course there are sophisticated methods, but when you want to just quickly set something up in class (or in your own kitchen) you don’t necessarily want to go through the whole hassle of a proper lab setup.

For double diffusive mixing, there are several methods out there that people routinely use.

For example the hose-and-funnel technique, where the less dense fluid is filled in the tank first and then the denser fluid is slid underneath with the help of a hose and a funnel. And a diffuser at the end of the hose. And careful pouring. And usually a lot more mixing than desired.

Or the plastic-wrap-to-prevent-mixing technique, where the dense fluid is put into the tank, covered by plastic wrap, and then the lighter fluid is poured on top. Then the plastic wrap is removed and by doing so the stratification is being destroyed. (No video because I was frustrated and deleted it right away)

Or some other techniques that I tried and didn’t find too impressive. (No videos either for the same reason as above)

But then accidentally I came across this method (as in: I wanted to show something completely different, but then I saw the salt fingers and was hooked):

Granted, this is not a realistic model of an oceanic stratification. But as you can see towards the end of that movie, that turns out to be a blessing in disguise if you want to talk about the process in detail. As you see in the movie, the salt fingers inside the bottle are much smaller than the salt fingers outside the bottle. Because, clearly, inside the bottle the warm water is cooled both at the interface with the cold water inside the bottle, and by heat conduction through the walls of the bottle, since the water is surrounded by cold water. The warm water that flowed out of the bottle and up towards the water’s surface is only cooled at the interface with the water below (the air above is warmer than the cold water). So this gives you the perfect opportunity to discuss the scaling of salt fingers depending on the stratification without having to go through the pains of actually preparing stratifications with different gradients in temperature or salinity.

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Self-portrait with salt fingers :-)

In my experience, the best salt fingers happen when you use hot water with dye (as the warm and salty top layer) and cold fresh water below. Salt fingers develop quickly, you don’t have the hassle of hitting the exact temperatures or salinities to make the density stratification statically stable, yet unstable in salinity, and it ALWAYS works.

 

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Double-diffusive mixing. Scale at the bottom is centimeters.

 

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Salt fingering in a tank. Scale at the bottom is centimeters.

And look at how beautiful it looks! Do you understand why I LOVE double diffusion?