Tag Archives: double-diffusive mixing

Ostfriesentee — Double diffusion in a tea cup

Showing double-diffusive mixing in tank experiments is a pain if you try to do it the proper way with carefully measured temperatures and salinities. It is, however, super simple, if you go for the quick and dirty route: Cream in tea! Even easier than the “forget the salt, just add food dye” salt fingering experiment I’ve been recommending until now.

The result of double-diffusive mixing of cream in tea is probably familiar to most (see above), but have you ever looked closely at the process?

Below, we pour cold cream into hot tea. The cream initially sinks to the bottom of the tea cup, but then quickly heats up and fingers start raising to the surface of the cup. They are visible as fingers because while the heat has quickly diffused into the cream, the actual mixing of substances takes longer and the opaque milk stays visible in the clear tea. Only when the fingers have risen to the surface the substances begin to mix due to shear and diffusion of substances. Hence the name “double diffusion”: First diffusion of heat, then of particles afterwards.

Pretty cool, isn’t it?

If you happened to stir the tea before pouring the cream, it looks even more awesome. Home-made galaxies :-)

And isn’t it fascinating how the blob of cream in the middle of the cup stays intact for quite some time?

So now you know the only reason why I am drinking black tea: So I can do salt fingering experiments with it! :-)

Accidental double-diffusive mixing

When setting up the stratification for the Nansen “dead water” demo (that we’ll show later today, and until then I am not allowed to share any videos, sorry!), I went into a meeting after filling in layer 4 (the then lowest). When I came back, I wanted to fill in layer 5 as the new bottom layer. For this experiment we want the bottom four layers to have the same density (so we would actually only have one shallow top layer and then a deep layer below [but we can’t make enough salt water at a time for that layer, so I had to split it into four portions]), and I had mixed it as well as I could. But two things happened: a) my salinity was clearly a little fresher than the previous layer, and b) the water in the tank had warmed up and the new water I was adding with layer 5 was cold tap water. So I accidentally set up the stratification for salt fingering: warm and salty over cold and fresh! Can you spot the darker pink fingers reaching down into the slightly lighter pink water? How cool is this??? I am completely flashed. Salt fingering in a 6 meter long tank! :-D


Layered latte: A great real-life example of double-diffusive mixing!

Sometimes sitting in a café for a work meeting with #lieblingskollegin Julia can lead to unexpected discoveries of oceanographic processes — in my latte! It’s those little things that inspire blog posts…

“Kitchen oceanography” brings the ocean to your house or class room!

Oceanography is often taught in a highly theoretical way without much reference to students’ real life experience. Of course a sound theoretical basis is needed to understand the complexity of the climate system, but sometimes a little “kitchen oceanography” — doing experiments on oceanographic topics with household items — goes a long way to raise interest in the kind of processes that are not easily observed in the real world. I’ve previously written a lot about simple experiments you can perform just using plastic cups, water, ice cubes, and a little salt. But sometimes it’s even easier: Sometimes your oceanography is being served to you in a cafe!

Oceanic processes can be observed in your coffee!

Have you ever looked at your latte and been fascinated by what is going on in there? Many times you don’t just see a homogenous color, but sometimes you see convection cells and sometimes even layers, like in the picture below.

Layers in a latte.

Layers in a latte.

But do you have any ideas why sometimes your latte looks like this and other times it doesn’t?

When you prepare latte in the right way, many layers form

Layers forming in latte (and in the ocean or in engineering applications) are an active research field! In the article “laboratory layered latte” by Xue et al. (2017), the authors describe that the “injection velocity” of espresso into the warm milk has to be above a critical value in order for these pretty structures to form in a latte. They even provide a movie where you can watch the layers develop over a period of several minutes.

The homogeneous layers with sharp boundaries are caused by double-diffusive mixing

Double-diffusive mixing, which is causing the formation of these layers, is the coolest process in oceanography. In a nutshell, double diffusive mixing is caused by two properties influencing density having different rates of molecular diffusion. These different rates can change density in unexpected ways and an initially stable stratification (high density at the bottom, low density on top) can, over time, become statically unstable. And static instability leads to adjustment processes, where water parcels move in order to reach the position in the fluid where they are statically stable — the fluid mixes.

Layers in half a glass of latte.

Layers in half a glass of latte.

But there are more fascinating things going on with the latte. Would you expect this stratification to remain as clearly visible as it is in the picture above even though the glass is now half empty? I did not! And then check out what happens when you move the glass: Internal waves can travel on the boundaries between layers!

You can use this in class to teach about mixing!

Mixing in the ocean is mostly observed by properties changing over time or in space, and even though (dye) tracer release experiments exist, they are typically happening on scales that provide information on the large-scale effects of mixing and not so much on the mixing itself. And they are difficult to bring inside the classroom! But this is where kitchen oceanography and experiments on double-diffusive mixing come in. If you need inspiration on how to do that, I’ve recently published an article on this (unfortunately only in German), but there are plenty of resources on this blog, too. Or shoot me an email and we’ll talk!

P.S.: Even though the coffee company is displayed prominently in the pictures above, they did not pay for my coffee (or anything else). But if they’d be interested and make me a good offer, I’d definitely write up some fun stuff on learning oceanography with coffee for them ;-)

Experiment: Double-diffusive mixing (salt fingering)

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”.


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.


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.



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



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?

P.S.: This text originally appeared on my website as a page. Due to upcoming restructuring of this website, I am reposting it as a blog post. This is the original version last modified on November 4th, 2015.

I might write things differently if I was writing them now, but I still like to keep my blog as archive of my thoughts.

Experiment: Temperature-driven circulation

My favorite experiment. Quick and easy and very impressive way to illustrate the influence of temperature on water densities.

This experiment is great if you want to talk about temperature influencing density. Although it doesn’t actually show anything different from a temperature driven overturning experiment, where circulation is determined by hot water rising and cold water sinking, somehow this experiment is a lot more impressive. Maybe because people are just not used to see bottles pouring out with the water coming out rising rather than plunging down, or maybe because the contrast of the two bottles where one behaves exactly as expected and the other one does not?

Anyway, it is really easy to do. All you need is a big jar and two small bottles. Cold water in one of the small bottles is dyed blue, hot water in the other small bottle is dyed red. Both are inserted in the jar filled with lukewarm water (movie below).

Using bottles with a narrower neck than mouth is helpful if you want to use the opportunity to talk about not only temperature-driven circulation, but also about double-diffusive mixing (which you see in form of salt fingers inside the red bottle in the picture above).

Isn’t this beautiful?

P.S.: This text originally appeared on my website as a page. Due to upcoming restructuring of this website, I am reposting it as a blog post. This is the original version last modified on December 2nd, 2015.

I might write things differently if I was writing them now, but I still like to keep my blog as archive of my thoughts.

“Laboratory layered latte” – combining latte and double diffusion. Easily my favourite paper ever!

My friends know me well. Especially A&I, which was proven again when they sent me the link to an article about two things that I am mildly obsessed with: Latte and double-diffusive mixing.

My obsession with latte is a fairly recent thing, but I have been known to blog about interesting convection pattern in it (for example here). The obsession with double-diffusive mixing, however, is well documented for more than the last 12 years (for example when I am writing experimental instructionspoems or scientific articles about it).

The double-diffusive process that I have been most concerned with is salt fingering, because it is oh-so-pretty, and also fool-proof to create for teaching purposes (when you know how to do it).

Diffusive layering I seem have to be a little frustrated with, at least in teaching (but reading back this post now, it turns out that that was entirely my own fault and not my students’. Oh well, you live and learn! Isn’t this exactly the kind of stuff that makes for great teaching portfolios? ;-)).

And it also turns out that I did the experiments themselves all wrong. According to the article “laboratory layered latte” by Xue et al. (2017). I should not have been trying to carefully stratify a tank in order to see diffusive layering. Instead, I should just have quickly poured the lower density fluid into the higher density one, and layers would have formed by themselves!

So there is one thing that you won’t see any time soon:

Yep. Me drinking latte from any kind of vessel that doesn’t let me look at the stratification! I don’t know how I could ever have fallen into the trap of missing out on observing fluid dynamics while having my early morning coffee in the office. Now I urgently need a nice glass mug!

And you should go check out the article, it’s a really nice read. My new ambition in life: Write a fluid dynamics research article that applies the FD to some really cool, yet mundane, every day thing. Are you in, Elin? :-)

Xue, Nan and Khodaparast, Sepideh and Zhu, Lailai and Nunes, Janine K. and Kim, Hyoungsoo and Stone, Howard A., Laboratory layered latte. Nature Communications 8(1), 2017

Double the trouble — a poem about double-diffusive mixing in the ocean

On my blog’s fourth Birthday (!!!), it’s time to try something new. How about some celebratory oceanographic poetry? Obviously the topic has to be my oceanic pet process, double-diffusive mixing


Double the trouble

Heat mixes by molecules bumping
into each other and clunking
momentum transfers
so fast it all blurs
the warmer the faster they’r’all jumping

A different story for salts
where ions — through not their own faults!
must change their location
which leads to palpation
resembling a fairly slow waltz

Now heat and salt mix simultaneous
-ly without ‘ny extra extraneous
stirring or shaking
fish swimming, waves breaking,
which leads to effects miscellaneous

The ones I like best are salt finger:
structures that form and then linger,
tricking unsuspicious
oc’nographers vicious
-ly into assuming not threat to the thinker

This process includ’d in simulations
leads to much better foundations
of climate prediction
that is my conviction
you can read here* about the causations

Not only the currents o’the ocean
that consequently change their motion
but also biology
chemistry, geology
and last, not least, atmospheric transpos’tion

To sum up, this double diffusion,
those fingers that are no illusion
when climate has changed
the ocean’s been deranged
def’nitly deserve an inclusion :-)



Happy Birthday, my little blog! :-)


*Glessmer, M. S., Oschlies, A., & Yool, A. (2008). Simulated impact of double‐diffusive mixing on physical and biogeochemical upper ocean properties. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans113(C8).

I am missing institute seminars! Or: Why we should talk to people who use different methods

You probably know that I have recently changed my research focus quite dramatically, from physical oceanography to science communication research. What that means is that I am a total newbie (well, not total any more, but still on a very steep learning curve), and that I really appreciate listening to talks from a broad range of topics in my new field to get a feel for the lay of the land, so to speak. We do have institute seminars at my current work place, but they only take place like once a month, and I just realized how much I miss getting input on many different things on at least a weekly basis without having to explicitly seek them out. To be fair, it’s also summer vacation time and nobody seems to be around right now…

But anyway, I want to talk about why it is important that people not only of different disciplines talk, but also people from within the same discipline that use different approaches. I’ll use my first article (Simulated impact of double-diffusive mixing on physical and biogeochemical upper ocean properties by Glessmer, Oschlies, and Yool (2008)) to illustrate my point.

I don’t really know how it happened, but by my fourth year at university, I was absolutely determined to work on how this teeny tiny process, double-diffusive mixing (that I had seen in tank experiments in a class), would influence the results of an ocean model (as I was working as student research assistant in the modelling group). And luckily I found a supervisor who would not only let me do it, but excitedly supported me in doing it.

Double-diffusive mixing, for those of you who don’t recall, looks something like this when done in a tank experiment:


And yep, that’s me in the reflection right there :-)

Why should anyone care about something so tiny?

Obviously, there is a lot of value in doing research to satisfy curiosity. But for a lot of climate sciences, one important motivation for the research is that ultimately, we want to be able to predict climate, and that means that we need good climate models. Climate models are used as basis for policy decisions and therefore should represent the past as well as the present and future (under given forcing scenarios) as accurately as possible.

Why do we need to know about double-diffusive mixing if we want to model climate?

Many processes are not actually resolved in the model, but rather “parameterized”, i.e. represented by functions that estimate the influence of the process. And one process that is parameterized is double-diffusive mixing, because its scale (even though in the ocean the scale is typically larger than in the picture above) is too small to be represented.

Mixing, both in ocean models and in the real world, influences many things:

  • By mixing temperature and salinity (not with each other, obviously, but warmer waters with colder, and at the same time more salty waters with less salty), we change density of the water, which is a function of both temperature and salinity. By changing density, we are possibly changing ocean currents.
  • At the same, other tracers are influenced: Waters with more nutrients mix with waters with less, for example. Also changed currents might now supply nutrient-rich waters to other regions than they did before. This has an impact on biogeochemistry — stuff (yes, I am a physical oceanographer) grows in other regions than before, or gets remineralized in different places and at different rates, etc.
  • A change in biogeochemistry combined with a changed circulation can lead to changed air-sea fluxes of, for example, oxygen, CO2, nitrous oxide, or other trace gases, and then you have your influence on the atmosphere right there.

What are the benefits of including tiny processes in climate models?

Obviously, studying the influence of individual processes leads to a better understanding of ocean physics, which is a great goal in itself. But that can also ultimately lead to better models, better predictions, better foundation for policies. But my main point here isn’t even what exactly we need to include or not, it is that we need a better flow of information, and a better culture of exchange.

Talk to each other!

And this is where this tale connects to me missing institute seminars: I feel like there are too few opportunities for exchange of ideas across research groups, for learning about stuff that doesn’t seem to have a direct relevance to my own research (so I wouldn’t know that I should be reading up on it) but that I should still be aware of in case it suddenly becomes relevant.

What we need is that, staying in the example of my double-diffusive mixing article, is that modellers keep exploring the impact of seemingly irrelevant changes to parameterizations or even the way things are coded. And if you aren’t doing it yourself, still keep it in the back of your head that really small changes might have a big influence, and listen to people working on all kinds of stuff that doesn’t seem to have a direct impact on your own research. In case of including the parameterization of double-diffusive mixing, oceanic CO2 uptake is enhanced by approximately 7% of the anthropogenic CO2 signal compared to a control run! And then there might be a climate sensitivity of processes, i.e. double-diffusive mixing happening in many ore places under a climate that has lead to a different oceanic stratification. If we aren’t even aware of this process, how can we possibly hope that our model will produce at least semi-sensible results? And what we also need are that the sea going and/or experimental oceanographers keep pushing their research to the attention of modellers. Or, if we want less pushing: more opportunities for and interest in exchanging with people from slightly different niches than our own!

One opportunity just like that is coming up soon, when I and others will be writing from Grenoble about Elin Darelius and her team’s research on Antarctic stuff in a 12-m-diameter rotating tank. Imagine that. A water tank of that size, rotating! To simulate the influence of Earth’s rotation on ocean current. And we’ll be putting topography in that! Stay tuned, it will get really exciting for all of us, and all of you! :-)

P.S.: My #COMPASSMessageBox for this blogpost below. I really like working with this tool! Read more about the #COMPASSMessageBox.


And here is the full citation: Glessmer, M. S., Oschlies, A., & Yool, A. (2008). Simulated impact of double‐diffusive mixing on physical and biogeochemical upper ocean properties. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 113(C8).

My favorite demonstration of the coolest mixing process: Salt fingering!

I am updating many of my old posts on experiments and combining multiple posts on the same topic to come up with a state-of-the-art post, so you can always find the best materials on here. And today I would like to present you my favorite experiment: Salt fingering!

Check out the new page I made for salt fingering!


Self-portrait with salt fingers

As you guys might have noticed, I’ve been playing around with my site a quite bit. My blog has moved to mirjamglessmer.com/blog in order to make room for static pages of my favorite experiments or teaching tips right at the landing site mirjamglessmer.com. What do you think? Good idea? Did you notice anything that isn’t quite working yet or do you have advice or wishes? Let me know!