Tag Archives: Ekman spiral

Bottom Ekman layer without a rotating table

Can you do a bottom Ekman layer demonstration without a rotating table? That’s the kind of challenge I like :-)

The way I’ve previously showed bottom Ekman layers is by spinning up a cylindrical tank on the rotating table until it reaches solid body rotation, adding dye crystals to visualise the circulation later, and then stopping the tank to create friction at the bottom (and the sides, but we are mainly interested in the bottom since we want a bottom Ekman layer) as the water continues moving but comes under the influence of friction. But what if we just invert the whole thing?

Move the “bottom”, not the water

My initial idea was to use a Lazy Susan (you know, the kind of tray on a swivel base that you can use for your jam and honey etc on your breakfast table, but which you shouldn’t turn too rapidly (ask me how I know)) and to have a cylindrical vase sit on it, which will then be put in rotation and will rotate around and under the (initially still stagnant) water. The friction with the moving vase will then lead to a bottom-intensified circulation.

Problem here: While I have a Lazy Susan at home as well as a vase that would work as “tank”, I am currently in Bergen where I don’t have access to my own equipment. Instead, though, I have access to a rotating table in GFI’s basement which I used to simulate my Lazy Susan idea (Cool, eh? Simulating a non-rotating-table situation on a rotating table ;-)).

That worked quite well, didn’t it?

This, btw, is what the setup looked like:

So how would that work as kitchen oceanography without an actual rotating table?

The physics themselves obviously work in this setup. However, they will be really difficult to observe for several reasons:

  • Scales. A small dish (like the one I used; for comparison see the usual tank in the background in the picture above) makes it a lot more difficult to see what’s going on, and in my case the circulation is quickly influenced by the sides of the dish (which is obviously not what we wanted).
  • Rotation. It’s not difficult to set a Lazy Susan into rotation, but I imagine it will be quite difficult to keep it at a constant rotation for any length of time. But you will only see the nice spiral for as long as you keep the rotation constant. As soon as it changes, so will your currents and that will be clearly visible in the dye (which is why you put it in in the first place).
  • Documentation. If you want to document your experiment, if want to have your cameras co-rotating with the Lazy Susan, it’s going to be quite difficult to install them (but maybe you would just want one that sits stationary above the center of rotation? That would obviously be easy to do with a tripod)

So all in all: it was a nice idea, but either I haven’t thought it through well enough, or it is a whole lot easier to do with a rotating table. I would imagine that it’s quite hard to observe when you don’t know very well what you are looking for, so it is unfortunately not useful as a demonstration to introduce people to the topic. What do you think? Any suggestions on how to improve this and make it work at home?

Ekman spiral in a tank.

Tank experiment showing (the effects of) the Ekman spiral.

One experiments that has been run in GEOF130 forever is the “Ekman spiral” experiment. A tank filled with water is spun up to solid body rotation on a rotating table.

Then the tank is slowed down. The resulting friction between the water body and the tank creates a bottom Ekman spiral.

In the lab, you can observe the Ekman depth by looking into the tank from the side:

I’m showing you here what they see, except that you have a big advantage: The camera was mounted on the rotating table, so instead of watching the tank rotate in front of you (which makes it really difficult to focus on features without getting seasick) you are actually rotating with the tank.

It is very difficult to capture on video or photo, but Pierre and I are doing our best.

Stay tuned for a nice Ekman movie coming up soon!

Why do we get an Ekman spiral?

Visualizing an Ekman spiral using a deck of cards.

To state this right upfront: this post will not explain why the surface layer is moving at a 45 degree angle to the wind direction, and if anyone has a great idea for a simple demo for that please let me know! It will also not explain why the layers are turning further and further the deeper down you go. But what I am trying to do today is give an intuitive understanding for why all the theoretical layers in the water column turn in response to the surface layer and hence why an Ekman spiral develops if we accept that the surface layer is turning relative to the wind direction.

Demonstrating the formation of an Ekman spiral using a deck of cards.

You will need a deck of cards. Bonus points if they are “salmon fly” cards like mine (seriously – who could walk past a deck of cards with salmon flies on them? Plus I needed a deck of cards because I was already in Iceland when I realized I wanted to show this demo).

All you do now is put the stack in front of you. Put your hand on the top card, twist gently while applying a little bit of pressure. Voila – your Ekman spiral develops! It is turning the wrong way round, but the main point is that the twist is being transferred downwards from layer to layer and not only the top layer twisting while the other layers stay motionless.

And because people seem to always like movies: