Tag Archives: stratification

Double-diffusive mixing

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:

[vimeo 83429427]

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 happening 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)

Ship-generated internal waves

A tank experiment showing ship-generated internal waves.

When entering a fjord from the open ocean by ship, it can sometimes be noted that the speed of the ship changes even though apparently nothing else changed – the wind didn’t change, the position of the sails didn’t change, the settings on the engine didn’t change – whatever was driving the ship didn’t change. And yet, the ship slowed down. How can that be?

According to the legend (that I like to propagate in my classes), when this phenomenon was first noticed, people attributed it to sea monsters latching onto the ship and slowing it down. Or if not monsters, than at least mollusks and other not-quite mostery monsters. But then Bjerknes came along and, together with Ekman, set up experiments that explain what is taking all the energy away from propulsion. I’ll give you a hint:

Yes – the ship excites internal waves at a density interface. Since the stratification in a fjord is much stronger than in the ocean, driving into a fjord means loosing a lot more energy towards the generation of internal waves.

See the movie here: