Tag Archives: overturning

Experiment: Oceanic overturning circulation (the slightly more complicated version)

The experiment presented on this page is called the “slightly more complicated version” because it builds on the experiment “oceanic overturning circulation (the easiest version)” here.

Background

One of the first concepts people hear about in the context of ocean and climate is the “great conveyor belt”. The great conveyor belt is a very simplified concept of the global ocean circulation, which is depicted as a single current that spans the world oceans (see Figure 1 below). In this simplified view of the global circulation, water flows as a warm, global surface current towards the North Atlantic, where it cools, sinks and finally returns southward and through all the world oceans near the bottom of the ocean. Water is transported back to the surface through mixing processes and starts over its journey again as a warm surface current. While in reality some part of the conveyor belt is wind-driven and many processes come to play together, a large part of the circulation can be explained by the water sinking due to cooling at high latitudes.

Conveyor_belt

Figure 1: The great conveyor belt. My sketch on top of a map from http://www.free-world-maps.com

This can be very easily represented in a demonstration or experiment.

Materials

What we need for this experiment:

  • 2 gel pads for sports injuries, one hot, one cold
  • red and blue food coloring
  • a clear plastic container to act as tank
  • a pipette or drinking straws to disperse drops of dye
  • dye crystals to show the circulation. Can also be drops of a different color dye.
Running the experiment

The container is filled with lukewarm water.  On the “poleward” end, we add the cold pad, the warm one at the “equatorward” end of the tank.

Blue dye is tripped on the cold pad to mark the cold water, red dye on the warm pad as a tracer for warm water.

overturning

Thermally-driven overturning circulation: Warm water flowing near the surface from the warm pad on the left towards the right, cold flow from the cool pad at the bottom right to left.

A circulation develops. If you drop dye crystals in the tank, the ribbon that formed gets deformed by the currents for yet another visualization of the flow field.

overturning2

Thermally-driven overturning circulation. In the middle of the tank you see a ribbon of dye, caused by falling dye crystals, being transformed by the currents in the tank.

Here is the video:

What observations to make

Besides the obvious observation, watching, there are a couple of things you can ask your audience to do.

For example, if they carefully slide their fingers up and down the side of the tank, they will feel the warm water near the surface and the cold water at the bottom.

If you have a clear straw, you can use it as plunging syphon to extract a “column” of water from the middle of the tank, showing again the stratification of red, clear, blue.

If you put little paper bits on the surface, you will see them moving with the surface current.

Can you come up with more?

Who can I do this experiment with?

Someone recently asked me whether I had ideas for experiments for her course in ocean sciences for non-majors. Since most of the experiments I’ve been showing on this blog were run in the context of Bachelor or Master oceanography-major courses, she didn’t think that the experiments were as easily transferable to other settings as I had claimed.

So here is proof: You can do pretty complex experiments with non-university level students. To prove my point, let’s go to a primary school.

IMG_3219

Me running the overturning experiment with a primary school class in 2012.

IMG_3214

The overturning experiment as seen by the teacher (2012).

Of course, you can adapt this experiment to different levels of prior knowledge. For example, in the primary school, I introduced this experiment by showing pictures of lions and penguins and other animals that the pupils knew live in warm or cold climates, and we talked about where those animals live. In the end this aimed at how temperatures are a lot colder at the poles than at the equator. This is the differential heating we need for this experiment to work. While this is something that I felt the need to talk about with the primary school kids, this can be assumed as a given with older students (or at least that is the assumption that I made).

With the university-level courses, one of the points that I made sure came up during the discussion are the limitations of this model. For example that we apply both heating and cooling over the full depth of the water column. How realistic is that? Or the fact that we heat at one end and cool at the other, rather than cooling on either end and heating in the middle?

Let me zoom in on something in the picture above.

IMG_3214_2

Curious features in the thermal conveyor experiment. Do you know what this is about?

Do you see these weird red filaments? Do you think they are a realistic part of the thermal circulation if it was scaled up to a global scale?

Of course not. What we see here is salt fingering. This is a process that is caused by the different diffusivities of heat and of the red dye. And while it is pretty large scale in our small tank, you cannot scale it up just like that when talking about the real ocean. And it is also really difficult to get rid of salt fingers for this experiment, in fact I haven’t yet managed. But I am open to suggestions! :-)

Another point that I would talk about with university-level students that I would probably not bring up with primary school kids (- although, why not if I had more time than just those 45 minutes per class?) is that ocean circulation is driven by more than just differential heating. Even when just considering the density-driven circulation, that is additionally influenced by changes in salinity. Put that together with wind-driven circulation and we are starting to talk about a whole new level of complicated…

But anyway. My point is that even primary school kids can benefit from doing this kind of experiments, even if what they take away from the experiments is not exactly the same as what older students would take away.

Discussion
As with every experiment, it is a lot easier for an “expert” to observe what he or she wants to observe, than for their students.
The left column in the figure above is taken from an instruction for educators and parents of primary school kids I wrote a while back. When taking the pictures I was aware that the quality in terms of signal-to-noise was not very good (and in fact people [i.e. my parents] even told me). In my defense: The pictures of this experiment I shared on this blog are all less noisy, and I even explicitly addressed and discussed some of the noise! But still, only when reading that article today I fully appreciated how difficult it might be to see the signal through the noise (especially when the speech bubbles in the picture don’t even point exactly to the right places!), and how distracting it probably is when I implicitly assume that students see the signal and even start discussing the noise more than the signal.

So what we see above are, in the left column, the pictures I originally shared in that manual. In the middle column, I’m showing what I see when I look at the pictures on the left. And then in the right column I’m drawing what people might be seeing when looking at that same experiment. No idea if that really is what students see, but looking at the pictures now, there is actually no reason why they should see what I see. See?
One indicator of the signal-to-noise ratio and of what students actually perceive as important can be found in the three little essays the primary school kids show in the picture above wrote after my visit in December 2012: Two out of the three explicitly mention that I used a yoghurt beaker as heating on the one end of the tank (while the third only refers to a beaker). Clearly that seems to have been a very important observation to them.
So what do we take away from this? I, for one, am going to make sure to pay more attention to the signal-to-noise ratio when showing demonstrations. And if there happens to be a lot of noise, I am going to make it a lot clearer which part of the signal is actual signal, and which is noise. Lesson learned.

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 January 13th, 2016.

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: Oceanic overturning circulation (the easiest version)

“The easiest” in the title of this page is to show the contrast to a “slightly more complicated” version here.

Background

One of the first concepts people hear about in the context of ocean and climate is the “great conveyor belt”. The great conveyor belt is a very simplified concept of the global ocean circulation, which is depicted as a single current that spans the world oceans (see Figure 1 below). In this simplified view of the global circulation, water flows as a warm, global surface current towards the North Atlantic, where it cools, sinks and finally returns southward and through all the world oceans near the bottom of the ocean. Water is transported back to the surface through mixing processes and starts over its journey again as a warm surface current. While in reality some part of the conveyor belt is wind-driven and many processes come to play together, a large part of the circulation can be explained by the water sinking due to cooling at high latitudes.

Conveyor_belt

Figure 1: The great conveyor belt. My sketch on top of a map from http://www.free-world-maps.com (used with permission)

The experiment

Since the global conveyor belt is such a basic concept that we come across in many different contexts, it is very useful to have a good demonstration of what is happening in the world ocean. Plus demonstrations and experiments are always fun!

I here present a very simple experiment that can be used for many different purposes. In science outreach, for example on a fair or in a talk, to catch people’s attention and raise an interest in oceanography. In schools to do the same, or to connect the fascination of the ocean to school physics and talk about density, convection, heat. At university to do all of the above, as well as to practice writing lab reports, talk about the scientific method or the validity of simplifications in theoretical or physical models.

Materials needed

All we need to run this experiment is

  • a clear plastic container
  • lukewarm water
  • red and blue food dye
  • an ice cube tray and
  • access to a freezer.

Ideally we’d also have a thermos or some other kind of insulation to keep the ice cubes frozen until we start running the experiment. To prepare the experiment, all we need to do a half a day ahead is mix some blue food dye into the water that we put in the ice cube tray, and freeze the ice cubes.

Running the experiment

To run the experiment, we start out by filling our “tank” with lukewarm water. Let it settle for a bit. Now we decide for one end of your tank to be the “equator” end. There, we add some red food dye (see Figure 1).

overturning-ice-1

Figure 2: Tank with luke warm water. Red food dye added to the “warm” end of the tank.

Then we add the blue ice cubes to the “poleward” end of our tank (see Figure 3).

overturning-ice-2

Figure 3: Blue ice cubes melting at the poleward end of the tank. The cold melt water sinks to the bottom of the tank and then spreads “equatorward”.

The cold melt water from the ice cubes is denser than the lukewarm water in the tank and therefore sinks to the bottom of the tank where it spreads “equatorward”, pushing below the warmer water. This can be seen where the red water is pushed upwards and “poleward”.

Discussion

Of course, the processes at play here are not exactly the same as in the real ocean.

For one, deep water formation is NOT due to ice cubes melting in lukewarm water. In fact, melting of sea ice will in most cases not lead to any kind of sinking of water, since the melt water is fresh and the surrounding ocean water is salty and hence denser than the melt water. Cooling in the ocean happens through many processes at the surface of the ocean, like radiation into space and evaporation.

Heating is also represented in an extremely simplified way in this experiment. Heating in the ocean occurs mainly (with the negligible exception of thermal springs in the ocean) by radiative heating from the sun, and at the surface only. We “heat” throughout the whole depth of the ocean by filling the whole tank with lukewarm water.

Also, the mixing processes that, in the real ocean, bring deepwater back to the surface are not represented here at all. Our tank will eventually fill with a layer of cold water at the bottom (See Figure 4), and the circulation will stop once all the ice has melted.

overturning-ice-3

Figure 4: Blue ice cubes melting at the poleward end of the tank. The cold melt water sinks to the bottom of the tank and then spreads “equatorward”. Slowly, the tank fills with cold water.

Why use the experiment?

Even with all the simplifications described above, this experiment is a great first step in becoming intrigued by the ocean, and towards understanding ocean circulation. Seeing the melt water sink from the ice cubes is fascinating no matter how little interest one might have in the physics that cause it. Sliding a finger up and down the side of the tank lets you experience – feel! – how the temperature changes from warm near the surface to very cold near the bottom. Actually physically feeling this is a lot more impressive than just watching the experiment or even just being shown temperature sections of the ocean. And the experiment invites you to play: What if you added little pieces of paper on the water surface, would you see them move with the flow towards the cold end of the tank? Or if you dropped a dye crystal in the middle of the tank, would the dye ribbon that forms be deformed by the currents in the tank? And what if you added twice as many ice cubes, would the currents be twice as fast?

This is pretty much the easiest experiment you can imagine. If you are afraid of what food dye might do in the hands of your participants, you don’t even need to let them handle it themselves, even when they are working in small groups with individual tanks: just go around dripping the dye in and then add the dyed ice cubes yourself. While someone might still tip over a tank and spill the water, this has yet to happen to me. Especially since, before running the experiment, you will have pointed out that they need to make sure not to bang against the tables as to not disturb the experiment. And now apart from making sure that the ice cubes are frozen when you want to run this experiment, there is nothing that can go wrong. So why not try this experiment next time you want to talk about global ocean circulation?

Watch a video of the experiment here:

What would I do differently next time?

Next time, I would pay attention to which end of my tank will represent the equatorward and poleward side of the ocean. Not that it matters much, but in most graphics of sections through the North Atlantic, the northern end will be on the right side and the southern end on the left. If the experiment is set up the other way round (as on all pictures and movies above) you will need to remember to point it out (or even mark it on the tank with a sharpie or such).

Still scared of the hassle of running experiments?

And for all of you who hesitate doing awesome experiments because it looks like you need so much equipment: No you don’t. Here is a “making of” shot from how I did this experiment on my coffee table while sitting on my couch. The background is the back of an old calendar sheet, clipped to the back of a chair. And that’s it.

Screen shot 2015-11-02 at 3.41.24 PM

The setup for my experiment.

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.

Temperature-driven overturning experiment – the easy way

In my last post, I showed you the legendary overturning experiment. And guess what occurred to me? That there is an even easier way to show the same thing. No gel pads! (BUT! And that is a BIG BUT! Melting of ice cubes in lukewarm water is NOT the process that drives the “real” overturning! For a slightly longer version of this post check this out).

So. Tank full of luke warm water. Red dye on one end. Spoiler alert: This is going to be the “warm” end.

overturning-ice-1Now. Ice cubes on the “cold” end. For convenience, they have been dyed blue so that the cold melt water is easily identifiable as cold.

overturning-ice-2A very easy way to get a nice stratification! And as you see in the video below, awesome internal waves on the interface, too.

overturning-ice-3

And because I know you like a “behind the scenes”:

I took this picture sitting on my sofa. The experiment is set up on the tea table. The white background is a “Janosch” calendar from 15 years ago, clipped to the back of a chair. And that is how it is done! :-)

Screen shot 2015-11-02 at 3.41.24 PM

Overturning experiment. By Mirjam S. Glessmer

A very simple overturning experiment for outreach and teaching

For one of my side-projects I needed higher-resolution photos of the overturning experiment, so I had to redo it. Figured I’d share them with you, too.

You know the experiment: gel pads for sports injuries, one hot (here on the left), one cold (here on the right). Blue dye on the cold pad to mark the cold water, red dye on the warm pad as a tracer for warm water.

overturning

Thermally-driven overturning circulation: Warm water flowing near the surface from the warm pad on the left towards the right, cold flow from the cool pad at the bottom right to left.

A circulation develops. If you drop dye crystals in the tank, the ribbon that formed gets deformed by the currents for yet another visualization of the flow field.

overturning2

Thermally-driven overturning circulation. In the middle of the tank you see a ribbon of dye, caused by falling dye crystals, being transformed by the currents in the tank.

Lighting is a problem this time of year. I chose natural light over artificial, and it came out ok, I think.

And here is the video:

Thermally-driven overturning circulation

Cooling on one end of the tank, heating on the other: A temperature-driven overturning. [deutscher Text unten]

Always one of my favorite experiments – the overturning experiment (and more, and more).

IMG_8467

Final preparations. – Letzte Vorbereitungen

Unsere “Klima und Strömungen”-Gruppe hat heute ausprobiert, wie man in einem Tank eine Umwälzströmung erzeugen kann, indem man an einem Ende wärmt und am anderen Ende kühlt. Einige Versuche waren nötig, bis das Experiment perfektioniert war: Am Anfang fehlte die Wärmequelle am einen Ende, was aber erst auffiel als das kalte Wasser am Boden schon das Ende erreicht hatte. Dann war die Wärmequelle zwar vorhanden, aber von außen am Plexiglastank angebracht.

IMG_8482

Warm red surface current, cold blue deep current. – Warme rote Oberflächenströmung, kalte blaue Tiefenströmung.

Letztendlich wurden ein rotes Wärmepack erhitzt und ein blaues Kühlpack eingefroren, und beide in den Tank gesteckt. Und voila! Eine tolle Zirkulation!

Ganz gegen Ende des Experiments haben wir dann noch Farbkristalle in den Tank fallen lassen, und wie man im Bild unten sehen kann, sind die super, um die Zirkulation zu visualisieren. Aus den anfangs senkrechten Streifen formt sich schnell ein Strömungsprofil: Am Boden von kalt nach warm (links nach rechts) und an der Oberfläche in die entgegengesetzte Richtung.

IMG_8499

Dye streaks as circulation tracers. – Blaue Farbstreifen, um die Zirkulation zu verdeutlichen.

Und wenn man ganz genau hinschaut: Salzfinger! :-)

An overturning experiment (part 3)

By popular demand: A step-by-step description of the overturning experiment discussed here and here.

I wrote this description a while ago and can’t be bothered to transfer it into the blog format, so please go and find a .pdf here. This .pdf addresses young children in the first part, and grown-ups in the second part.

Have fun and if you use this in school or with your own kid, please let me know how it went! I love to hear from my readers! :-)

 

An overturning experiment (part 2)

How to adapt the same experiment to different levels of prior knowledge.

In this post, I presented an experiment that I have run in a primary school, with high-school pupils, in a Bachelor-level course and in a Master-level course. The experiment itself was run identically in all cases. However, the introductions, explanations and discussions about it obviously differed.

For example, in the primary school, I introduced this experiment by showing pictures of lions and penguins and other animals that the pupils knew live in warm or cold climates, and we talked about where those animals live. In the end this aimed at how temperatures are a lot colder at the poles than at the equator. This is the differential heating we need for this experiment to work. While this is something that I felt the need to talk about with the primary school kids, this can be assumed as a given with older students (or at least that is the assumption that I made).

With the university-level courses, one of the points that I made sure came up during the discussion are the limitations of this model. For example that we apply both heating and cooling over the full depth of the water column. How realistic is that? Or the fact that we heat at one end and cool at the other, rather than cooling on either end and heating in the middle?

With the university-level courses, we could also discuss other features that we could see during the experiment. Remember this image, for example?

IMG_3214

The thermal conveyor belt experiment.

Let me zoom in on something.

IMG_3214_2

Curious features in the thermal conveyor experiment. Do you know what this is about?

Do you see these weird red filaments? Do you think they are a realistic part of the thermal circulation if it was scaled up to a global scale?

Of course not. What we see here is salt fingering (oh, and did you guys notice that a diagram of how salt fingering works is displayed at the very top left of my header? I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that it was my favorite process ever!). So basically, this is a process that is caused by the different diffusivities of heat and of the red dye. And while it is pretty large scale in our small tank, you cannot scale it up just like that when talking about the real ocean. And it is also really difficult to get rid of salt fingers for this experiment, in fact I haven’t yet managed. But I am open to suggestions! :-)

Another point that I would talk about with university-level students that I would probably not bring up with primary school kids (- although, why not if I had more time than just those 45 minutes per class?) is that ocean circulation is driven by more than just differential heating. Even when just considering the density-driven circulation, that is additionally influenced by changes in salinity. Put that together with wind-driven circulation and we are starting to talk about a whole new level of complicated…

But anyway. My point is that even primary school kids can benefit from doing this kind of experiments, even if what they take away from the experiments is not exactly the same as what older students would take away.

One of the main messages the primary school kids got seems to have been that you need to take curd cheese beakers for your warming element (look here for some reports (in german)). Not exactly my main message, but at least they were very observant of how the experimental setup was designed ;-)

An overturning experiment

A simple experiment that shows how the large-scale thermally-driven ocean circulation works.

Someone recently asked me whether I had ideas for experiments for her course in ocean sciences for non-majors. Since most of the experiments I’ve been showing on this blog were run in the context of Bachelor or Master oceanography-major courses, she didn’t think that the experiments were as easily transferable to other settings as I had claimed.

So here is proof: You can do pretty complex experiments with non-university level students. To prove my point, let’s go to a primary school.

IMG_3219

Experimenting with a primary school class.

The experiment we are running here is the global (thermal) conveyor belt. In a long and narrow tank filled with water, a heating and a cooling element are inserted at either end. Dye is added onto the elements to visualize the flow of water.

IMG_3212

Adding dye to visualize the thermally driven flow in the tank.

In the image above you see that there is something blue near the bottom of the tank, and I am adding red dye to the other side. Blue is used to track the cold water and red to track the warm water (intuitive color-coding goes a long way, no matter how old your students are!)

IMG_3214

The experiment as seen by the teacher.

What you see here is the cold blue water sinking to the bottom of the tank and spreading, and the warm red water rising to the water’s surface and spreading there. As the warm water reaches the cooling pads, it gets cooled, becomes denser and sinks. Similarly, the cold water reaching the warming pads becomes less dense and rises, closing the loop.