Tag Archives: DryTheory2JucyReality

Why do we need a rotating tank to study ocean and atmosphere dynamics? A demonstration

For our project “Ocean currents in a tank: From dry theory to juicy reality“, Torge, Joke and I are working on building affordable rotating tanks to use in Torge’s Bachelor class on ocean and atmosphere dynamics. When people ask what we need rotating tanks for, the standard answer is that rotation of the tank simulates rotation of the Earth. Which is of course true, but it is not really satisfying because it doesn’t really convey the profound effect that rotation has on the behaviour of the ocean and atmosphere, which is actually very easy to show in a quite dramatic way (at least I think it’s dramatic ;-)).

Imagine a cylindrical tank filled with fresh water. In its middle, we place a (bottom-less) cylinder filled with dyed, salty water. When we lift the cylinder out of the tank, the blue dye is released into the freshwater. And depending on whether the tank is rotating or not, the blue water behaves very differently.

The picture below shows top views and side views of a non-rotating and a rotating experiment, taken after similar amounts of time after the “release” of the blue water.

Let’s focus on the top view first. In the non-rotating experiment, a dipole of two counter-rotating eddies develops within seconds of the central dense column being released, spreading blue water pretty much all throughout the tank. In the rotating experiment, after a similar amount of time, the dipole looks different: Even though the same amount of dyed water was released, the two eddies are much smaller and much more well-defined.

In the side view, the difference becomes even more clear. In the non-rotating experiment, looking at the boundary between the blue and clear water, we see eddies moving water in all directions, so in combination with the top view, we know that turbulence is three-dimensional.

In the rotating experiment, however, the boundary between blue and clear water looks very different. There is a clear separation between a blue column of water and the clear water surrounding it. From the side view, we don’t see any turbulence. We know, however, from the top view that there is turbulence in the horizontal plane. In the rotating case, turbulence is two-dimensional.

And this is the dramatic difference between rotating and non-rotating fluids: rotating fluids are rigid in a way that non-rotating fluids are not. And this means that they behave in fundamentally different ways: rather than developing in 3 dimensions, they only develop in 2 dimensions. So in order to simulate the atmosphere and ocean of the rotating earth correctly, we need to also rotate our water tank.

P.S.: Images for this post were originally posted in this post (and in other posts linked therein) 5 years ago. Hoping we’ll have new images soon when our new tanks are up and running! :-)

Demonstrating Ekman layers in a rotating tank: High pressure and low pressure systems!

Ekman spirals — current profiles that rotate their direction over depth, caused by friction and Coriolis force — are really neat to observe in a rotating tank. I just found out that they are apparently (according to Wikipedia) called “corkscrew currents” in German, and that’s what they look like, too. I tend to think of Ekman spirals more as an interesting by-product that we observe when stopping the tank after a successful experiment, but they totally deserve to be featured in their own experiments*.

Ekman layers form whenever fluid is moving relative to a boundary in a rotating system. In a rotating tank, that is easiest achieved by moving the boundary relative to the water, i.e. by increasing or decreasing the rotation rate of a tank and observing what happens before the water has adjusted to the new rotation and has reached solid body rotation. Spinning the tank up or down creates high and low pressure systems, respectively, similar to atmospheric weather system.

Creating a low-pressure system: Slowing down the tank

In atmospheric low pressure systems, air moves towards the center of the low pressure system, where it rises, creating the low pressure right there. This situation can probably easiest be modelled by stirring a cup of tea that has some tea leaves still in it. As the surface deforms and water bunches up at the sides, an overturning circulation is set into motion. Water sinks along the side walls and flows towards the center of the cup near the bottom. From there it rises, but any tea leaves or other stuff floating around get stuck in the middle on the bottom because they are too heavy to rise with the current. So there you have your low pressure system!

You can observe the same thing with a rotating tank, except now we don’t stir. The tank is filled with water and spun up to solid body rotation on the rotating table. When the water is in solid body rotation, a few dye crystals are dropped in, leaving vertical streaks as they are sinking to the ground (left plot in the image below).

Then the tank is slowed down. The resulting friction between the water body and the tank creates a bottom Ekman spiral. The streaks of dye that were left when the dye crystals were dropped into the tank move with the water when the tank is slowed down. In the upper part of the tank, the dye stripes stay vertical. But at the bottom, within the Ekman layer, they get deformed as the bottom layer lifts up, and thus show us the depth over which the water column is influenced by bottom friction (see black double arrow in the right plot in the picture below). Again, we have created a low pressure system with a similar overturning circulation as we saw in the tea cup.

In the bottom right corner of the image above, we see a top view of the tank with the trajectory the dye is taking from the spot where it rested on the ground before the rotation of the tank changed.

Looking into the tank with a co-rotating camera, we can also observe the Ekman depth, i.e. the depth that is influenced by the bottom: We see a clear distinction between the region where the dye streaks from the falling crystals are still vertical and the bottom Ekman layer, where they are distorted, showing evidence of the friction with the bottom.

So this was what happens when water is spinning relativ to a slower tank (or a non-rotating cup) — the paraboloid surface is adjusting to one that is more even or completely flat. But then there is also the opposite case.

Creating a high-pressure system: Spinning up the tank

If we take water that is at rest and start spinning the tank (or spin a moving tank faster suddenly), we create a high pressure system until we again reach solid body rotation.

Again, we dropped dye crystals when the water was in solid body rotation (or in solid body without rotation) before we start the spinup, as we see in the left plot below.

Now the sudden spinning of the boundaries relative to the body of water creates a high pressure system with the bottom flow outward from the center, which again we see in the deformation of the dye streaks. The Ekman depth is again the depth over which the dye streaks get bent, below the water column that isn’t influenced by friction where they still have their original vertical shape.

In the bottom right corner of the image above, we see a top view of the tank with the trajectory the dye is taking from the spot where it rested on the ground before the rotation of the tank changed.

Here is what this experiment looks like in a movie:

So here we have it. High pressure and low pressure systems in a tank!

*Which I actually did before, both in a rotating tank as well as on a Lazy Susan.

Funded! “Ocean currents in a tank: from dry theory to juicy reality”

Remember how Joke, Torge and I were working on building an affordable, home-made rotating tank to use in ocean dynamics teaching only last weekend? That session was inspired by a proposal that Torge submitted a while back, and which now got funded by PerLe, Kiel University’s project for successful teaching and learning (German abstract here). This is really exciting, it not only gives us official permission to play (well, someone will have to build the rotating tables and test the experiments, right?), it will also fund the collaboration and materials. Exciting!

We are planning to add hands-on experiments to the Bachelor-level “atmosphere and ocean dynamics” course at GEOMAR over the next year, but since there is no rotating table available, we want to build several (!) so several student groups can work on them at the same time. And you know me — what we do there will be documented and shared online not only by myself, but also by the students. So stay tuned, I see a lot of rotating tank experiments in our future! :-)

This is the kind of stuff we are going for (picture below shows old Hadley cell experiments from 2014)… Not quite there yet, but we will get there!

Working on our own affordable rotating table for oceanographic experiments!

Inspired by the article “Affordable Rotating Fluid Demonstrations for Geoscience Education: the DIYnamics Project” by the Hill et al. (2018), Joke, Torge and I have been wanting to build an affordable rotating table for teaching for a while now. On Saturday, we met up again to work on the project.

This post is mainly to document for ourselves where we are at and what else needs to happen to get the experiments working.

New this time: New rotating tables, aka Lazy Susans. After the one I’ve had in my kitchen was slightly too off-center to run smoothly, we bought the ones recommended by the DIYnamics project. And they work a lot better! To center our tank on the rotating table and keep it safely in place, we used these nifty LEGO and LEGO Duplo contraptions, which worked perfectly.

We also used a LEGO contraption to get the wheel close enough to drive the rotating table. The yellow line below shows where the rim of the rotating table’s foot needs to sit.

And this is how the engine has to be placed to drive the rotating table.

First attempt: Yes! Very nice parabolic surface! Very cool to see time and time again!

Now first attempt at a Hadley cell experiment: A jar with blue ice is placed at the center of the tank. Difficulties here: Cooling sets in right away, before the rotating tank has reached solid body rotation. That might potentially mess up everything (we don’t know).

So. Next attempt: Use a jar (weighted down with stones so it doesn’t float up) until the tank has reached solid body rotation, then add blue ice water

Working better, even though the green dye is completely invisible…

We didn’t measure rotation, nor did we calculate what kind of regime we were expecting, so the best result we got was “The Heart” (see below) — possibly eddying regime with wavenumber 3?

Here is what we learned for next time:

  • use better dye tracers and make sure their density isn’t too far off the water in the tank
  • use white  LEGO bricks to hold the tank in place (so they don’t make you dizzy watching the tank)
  • measure the rotation rate and calculate what kind of regime we expect to see — overturning or eddying, and at which wave number (or, even better, the other way round: decide what we want to see and calculate how to set the parameters in order to see it)
  • use white cylinder in the middle so as to not distract from the circulation we want to see; weigh the cylinder down empty and fill it with ice water when the tank has reached solid body rotation
  • give the circulation a little more time to develop between adding the cold water at the center and putting in dyes (at least 10 minutes)
  • it might actually be worth reading the DIYnamics team’s instruction again, and to buy exactly what they recommend. That might save us a lot of time ;-)

But: As always this was fun! :-)

P.S.: Even though this is happening in a kitchen, I don’t think this deserves the hashtag #kitchenoceanography — the equipment we are using here is already too specialized to be available in “most” kitchens. Or what would you say?

My first attempt at building a rotating table for kitchen oceanography using LEGO

Inspired by the article “Affordable Rotating Fluid Demonstrations for Geoscience Education: the DIYnamics Project” by the Hill et al. (2018), I spent a fun Sunday afternoon with my friends Joke and Torge in their kitchen, playing with Legos, water and food dye.

Turns out building a rotating table isn’t as easy as we had hoped, because my Lazy Susan’s axle is unfortunately really off centre (how did I never notice before?), which makes it pretty difficult to drive it with a grinding wheel, and the LEGO motor we were using only has one speed (which would have to be regulated by changing the diameter of the gears). That makes it really difficult to spin up a tank at rest if you go at it zero to full force…

But we got it to spin! Look at the cool paraboloid surface!

Next issue, though: my awesome glass vase which looks like it should work well as a tank has a really irregular bottom, which makes it very difficult to have anything stand in the centre without too much of a wobble. Also, for the Hadley Circulation experiment we were trying to set up here, when do you add in the cooling in the center? Would be best to do it after the tank is spun up, but that is such a pain to do! And I messed up the dye here, too.

But at least you can see a little bit of what it will be like when we are done, right?

Next time:

  • better Lazy Susan
  • better lighting
  • think about how to film it, therefore either have a co-rotating camera or a white background

And then it will be almost ready to be used in teaching. Well, almost…

Funny how tank experiments that you think should be quick and easy to set up & run always take sooo much longer than expected. But it’s so much fun that I really don’t mind! :-)