Demonstration: Nansen’s “dead water” in a tank!

A ship that is continuously pulled with a constant force suddenly slows down, stops, and then continues sailing as if nothing ever happened? What’s going on there? We will investigate this in a tank! And in order to see what is going on, we have dyed some of the water pink. Can you spot what is going on?

The phenomenon of “dead water” is probably well known to anyone sailing on strong stratifications, i.e. in regions where there is a shallow fresh or brackish layer on top of a much saltier layer, e.g. the Baltic Sea, the Arctic or some fjords. It has been described as early as 1893 by Fridtjof Nansen, who wrote, sailing in the Arctic: “When caught in dead water Fram appeared to be held back, as if by some mysterious force, and she did not always answer the helm. In calm weather, with a light cargo, Fram was capable of 6 to 7 knots. When in dead water she was unable to make 1.5 knots. We made loops in our course, turned sometimes right around, tried all sorts of antics to get clear of it, but to very little purpose.” (cited in Walker,  J.M.; “Farthest North, Dead Water and the Ekman Spiral,” Weather, 46:158, 1991)

When observing the experiment, whether in the movie above or in the lab, the obvious focus is on the ship and the interface between the clear fresh water layer (the upper 5cm in the tank) and the pink salt water layer below. And yes, that’s where a large-amplitude internal wave develops and eats up all the energy that was going into propulsion before! Only when looking at the time lapse of the experiments later did I notice how much more was going on throughout the tank! Check it out here:

The setup for this experiment is discussed here and is based on the super helpful website by Mercier, Vasseur and Dauxois (2009). In the end, we ended up without the belt to reduce friction, and with slightly different layer depths than we had planned, but all in all it works really well!

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