Tag Archives: rotating tank

Thermal forcing in a non-rotating vs rotating case: Totally different results

On Thursday, I wrote about the thermally driven overturning circulation experiment that Torge and I did as past of our “dry theory 2 juicy reality” experiments, and mentioned that it was a non-rotating experiment in a class about rotating fluid dynamics.

I showed you the rectangular tank, but we also used a cylindrical tank with cooling in the middle that is a rotational symmetric version of the “slice” in the rectangular tank. In both cases we see the same: Cold water sinks and spreads at the bottom and is then replaced by warmer water.

But when we start turning the cylindrical tank with the cooling in the middle, cool things start to happen. I’ve blogged about that experiment before, but here is a pic of the circulation that develops. Instead of an overturning, we now get heat transport via eddies!

This is actually a really nice way to show again how hugely important the influence of rotation is on the behaviour of the ocean and atmosphere!

Planetary Rossby waves

I ran my new favourite experiment again, the planetary Rossby waves. They work super well on the DIYnamics table we built in Kiel and they also worked really well the other day in Bergen.

I mainly ran it today because I wanted to get an idea of how robust the experiment is, i.e. what to prepare for when running it with students in terms of weird results that might have to be explained.

Here is a side view of the square tank with a sloping bottom. The blue ice cube is melting. The melt water is forming a Taylor column down to the bottom of the tank. Some of it then continues down the slope.

Here we are looking at the slope and see the same thing (plus the reflection at the surface). Note how the ice cube and its  meltwater column have already moved quite a bit from the corner where I released it!

When the blue ice cube had crossed half the width of the tank and the blue melt water had almost reached the other edge, I released a green ice cube. Sadly the dye wasn’t as intense as the blue one. But it’s quite nice that the wave length between the individual plumes going down the slope stays the same, for all the blue plumes as well as for the new green ones.

Here in the side view we see the columns of the blue and green ice cube, and we also see that each of the plumes going down the slope still has Taylor columns attached at its head.

Here is an accelerated movie of the experiment, 20x faster than real time. Not sure why there is still sloshing in the tank (this time I made sure it was level), but it’s very nice to see that the ice cubes are spinning cyclonically, faster than the tank! As they should, since they are sitting on Taylor columns…

I think next time I really want to make a side view movie of the Taylor columns and plumes. Not quite sure yet how I will manage the lights so they don’t get super annoying…

Planetary Rossby waves on Beta-plane. A super easy tank experiment!

This is seriously one of the easiest tank experiments I have ever run! And I have been completely overthinking it for the last couple of weeks.

Quick reminder: This is what we think hope will happen: On a slope, melt water from a dyed ice cube will sink, creating a Taylor column that will be driven down the slope by gravity and back up the slope by vorticity conservation, leading to a “westward” movement in a stretched, cyclonic trajectory.

We are using the DIYnamics setup: A LEGO-driven Lazy Susan. And as a tank, we are using a transparent plastic storage box that I have had for many years, and the sloping bottom is made out of two breakfast boards that happened to be a good size.

Water is filled to “just below the edge of the white clips when they are in the lower position” (forgot to take measurements, this is seriously what I wrote down in my notes. We didn’t really think this experiment would work…)

The tank is then rotated at the LEGO motor’s speed (one rotation approximately every 3 seconds) and spun into solid body rotation. We waited for approximately 10 minutes, although I think we had reached solid body rotation a lot faster. But we had a lot of surface waves that were induced by some rotation that we couldn’t track down and fix. But in the end they turned out to not matter.

To start the experiment, Torge released a blue ice cube in the eastern corner of the shallow end. As the ice cube started melting, the cold melt water sank down towards the ground, where it started flowing towards the bottom of the tank. That increased the water column’s positive relative vorticity, which drove it back up the slope.

This was super cool to watch, especially since the ice cube started spinning cyclonically itself, too, so was moving in the same direction and faster than the rotating tank.

You see this rotation quite well in the movie below (if you manage to watch without getting seasick. We have a co-rotating setup coming up, it’s just not ready yet…)

Very soon, these amazing meandering structures appear: Rossby waves! :-)

And over time it becomes clear that the eddies that are being shed from the column rotating with the ice cubes are constant throughout the whole water depth.

It is a little difficult to observe that the structure is really the same throughout the whole water column since the color in the eddies that were shed is very faint, especially compared to the ice cube and the melt water, but below you might be able to spot it for the big eddy on the left.

Or maybe here? (And note the surface waves that become visible in the reflection of the joint between the two breakfast boards that make up the sloping bottom. Why is there so much vibration in the system???)

You can definitely see the surface-to-bottom structures in the following movie if you don’t let yourself be distracted by a little #HamburgLove on the back of the breakfast boards. Watching this makes you feel really dizzy, and we’ve been starting at this for more than the 8 seconds of the clip below ;-)

After a while, the Taylor column with the ice cube floating on top starts visibly moving towards the west, too. See how it has almost reached the edge of the first breakfast board already?

And because this was so cool, we obviously had to repeat the experiment. New water, new ice cube.

But: This time with an audience of excited oceanographers :-)

This time round, we also added a second ice cube after the first one had moved almost all the way towards the west (btw, do you see how that one has this really cool eddy around it, whereas the one in the east is only just starting to rotate and create its own Taylor column?)

And last not least: Happy selfie because I realized that there are way too few pictures like this on my blog, where you see what things look like (in this case in the GEOMAR seminar room) and who I am playing with (left to right: Torge, Franzi, Joke, Jan) :-)

Taylor column in a rotating tank

For both of my tank experiment projects, in Bergen and in Kiel, we want to develop a Taylor column demonstration. So here are my notes on the setup we are considering, but before actually having tried it.

Since water under rotation becomes rigid, funny things can happen. For example if a current in a rotating system hits an obstacle, even if the obstacle isn’t high at all relative to the water depth, the current has to move around the obstacle as if it reached all the way from the bottom to the surface. This can be shown in a rotating tank, so of course that’s what we are planning to do!

We are following the Weather in a Tank instructions:

  • rotating our tank at 5rpm with the obstacle in the water until solid body rotation is reached (We know that solid body rotation is reached if paper bits distributed on surface all rotate at same rate as the tank).
  • change the rotation rate a little (they suggest as little as -0.1 rpm) so water moves relative to tank and obstacle, i.e. we have created a current flowing in the rotating system.

As the current meets the obstacle, columns of water have to move around the obstacle as if it went all the way from the bottom to the surface. This is made visible by the paper bits floating on the surface that are also moving around the area where the obstacle is located, even though the obstacle is far down at the bottom of the tank and there is still plenty of water over it.

In the sketch below, the red dotted line indicates a concentric trajectory in the tank that would go right across the obstacle, the green arrows indicate how the flow is diverted around the Taylor column that forms over the obstacle throughout the whole water depth.

Or at least that’s what I hope will happen! I am always a little sceptical with tank experiments that require changing the rotation rate, since that’s what we do to show both turbulence and Ekman layers, neither of which we want to prominently happen in this case here. On the other hand, we are supposed to be changing the rotation rate only very slightly, and in the videos I have seen it did work out. But this is an experiment that is supposedly difficult to run, so we will see…

I also came across about a super cool extra that Robbie Nedbor-Gross and Louis Dumas implemented in this demo: a moving Taylor column! when the obstacle is moved, the Taylor column above it moves with it. Check out their video, it is really impressive! However I think implementing this feature isn’t currently very high on my list of priorities. But it would be fun!

Combining rotation of a water tank with a temperature gradient: A Hadley cell circulation demo!

Yesterday, we combined a thermally-driven overturning circulation with the effects of rotation, and thus created a Hadley cell circulation. And while the tank was turning faster than we would have liked, we still managed to create a circulation that largely resembles the sketch below: An axially-symmetric overturning circulation (with cold water, indicated by blue arrows, moving down near the cooling in the middle and then outwards, and warmer water moving up along the outer rim and then towards the middle of the tank) which induces the thermal wind flow (sketched in green: Fast surface current in the direction of rotation but even faster than the tank is rotating, and slow bottom flow in the opposite direction).

But what would happen if we increased the tank’s rotation rate? It would make the induced azimuthal flow, the thermal wind, faster too, until it eventually becomes unstable and breaks down into eddies. And then, the experiment (first blogged about a long time ago) looks similar to this one: Lots and lots of eddies that are now rigid vertically and move as Taylor columns!

Heat exchange between the cold core and the warmer areas towards the rim of the tank now doesn’t happen via overturning any more, but looks something like sketched below: We now have radial currents bringing warm water towards the middle (red) and cold water away from it (blue), and the eddies that create those currents are coherent over the whole depth of the tank.

This is actually a really nice demonstration of the circulation in mid- and high latitudes where the weather is determined by baroclinic instabilities, i.e. weather systems just like the eddies we are showing here.

Btw, having two different experiments both represent the same Hadley cell circulation isn’t a contradiction in itself: On Earth, the Coriolis parameter changes with latitude, but in the tank, the Coriolis parameter is the same throughout the tank. So depending on what latitude we want to represent, we need to change the tank’s rotation rate.

Here is an (old) movie of the experiment, and I can’t wait for our own tanks to be ready to produce a new one!


Combining a slowly rotating water tank with a temperature gradient: A thermal wind demonstration!

Setting up an overturning circulation in a tank is easy, and also interpreting the observations is fairly straightforward. Just by introducing cooling on one side of a rectangular tank a circulation is induced (at least for a short while until the tank fills up with a cold pool of water; see left plot of the image below).

But now imagine an axially symmetric setup where the cooling happens in the middle. What will happen to that overturning circulation if the tank is set into rotation (see right plot above)?

First, let’s check there is an overturning circulation. We can see that there is when we look at dye crystals that sank to the bottom of the tank: Dye streaks are moving outwards (and anti-clockwise) from where the crystals dropped on the ground, so at least that part of the overturning circulation is there for sure. If our tank were taken to represent the Hadley cell circulation in the atmosphere, this bottom flow would be the Trade winds.

Now, in addition to having water sink in the middle of the tank, spread radially outwards, and returning by rising near the outer edge of the tank and flowing back towards the middle, a secondary circulation is induced, and that’s the “thermal wind”. The thermal wind, introduced by the temperature gradient from cold water on the inside of the tank to warmer waters towards the rim, tilts columns that would otherwise stay vertically.

You see that in the image below: Dye dropped into the tank does not sink vertically, but gets swirled around the cold center in a helix shape, indicated in the picture below by the white arrows. In that picture, the swirls are tilted very strongly (a lot stronger than we’d ideally have them tilted). The reason for that is that we just couldn’t rotate the tank as slowly as it should have been, and the higher the rotation rate, the larger the tilt. Oh well…

So this is the current pattern that we observe: An overturning circulation (sketched with the red arrows representing warmer water and the blue arrows representing colder waters below), as well as the thermal wind circulation (indicated in green) with stronger currents near the surface (where the water is moving in the same direction as the rotating tank, but even faster!) and then a backward flow near the bottom. The velocities indicated here by the green arrows are what ultimately tilted our dye streaks in the image above.

The thermal wind component arises because as the overturning circulation moves water, that water carries with it its angular momentum, which is conserved. So water being brought from the rim of the tank towards the middle near the surface HAS to move faster than the tank itself the closer it gets to the middle. This flow would be the subtropical jets in the Hadley cell circulation if out tank were to represent the atmosphere.

Here is an old video of the experiment, first shown 5 years ago here. I’m looking forward to when Torge’s & my rotating tanks are ready so we can produce new videos and pictures, and hopefully being able to rotate the tank even more slowly than we do here (but that was the slowest possible rotation with the setup we had at that time). I promise you’ll see them here almost in realtime, so stay tuned! :-)

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.

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! :-)