A pink swirl going across a styrofoam block underneath a layer of yellow water? What’s going on here?
The picture was taken in a water tank, simulating the circulation of water masses in a fjord. A fjord is a long and narrow bay, usually with a sill that is separating the bay from the open ocean. And those sills play an important role in on the one hand preventing water exchange between the fjord and the open ocean (because everything below sill depth has a really hard time getting across the sill) and on the other hand mixing water masses inside and outside of the fjord (which we see visualized with the pink dye).
And here is why the sill is so important: Every time the tide goes in or out of the fjord (so pretty much all the time), the sill acts as an obstacle to the water that wants to go in or out. And flow across a ridge tends to create mixing downstream of the ridge.
In the picture below, we see a sketch of the situation in an outgoing tide, which is what we also see represented in the photo above: Water wants to push out of the fjord and has to accelerate to get through the much smaller cross section where the sill is located. This leads to strong currents and strong mixing “downstream” of the obstacle.
Except that “downstream” is on the other side of the sill only a couple of hours later, when the tide is pushing water into the fjord, but is again hindered by the sill.
So what is happening is this: The tidal current goes in and out, and mixing occurs on one or the other side of the sill. So the situation looks like this:
This is what that looks like in our tank (the “tidal waves” are generated by lifting the right end of the tank and then just slushing back and forth):
Of course, in reality we don’t see pink swirls, and the surface layer isn’t a different color from the deep layer, either. But that’s why tank experiments are so cool: They show us what’s going on deep below the waves, that we can otherwise only deduce from complicated measurements of temperatures, salinities or mixing rates, which require highly specialized equipment, a research ship, and lots of technical know how to process and analyse and display. Which, of course, is also being done, but this demonstration gives a quick and easy visual representation of the processes at play at sills all around the world.
P.S.: The photos in this blog post were taken when I ran the fjord circulation experiment with Steffi and Ailin at GFI earlier this year. I am posting about this again now because I wanted to use the picture for other purposes and realized that I never actually wrote about this feature in as much detail as it deserves!
It has been a long time in the making, but finally we have a nice fjord circulation in our tank!
Pierre and I tried to improve it 6 years ago, Steffi, Ailin and I have been working on it for a couple of days last August, then finally this morning, Steffi and I tried again — and it worked beautifully right away!
We now have an experiment that shows how a fresh, yellow inflow (representing the freshwater input into fjords close to their heads by rivers) flows over a initially stagnant pool of salt water. As the freshwater plume flows out of the fjord, it entrains more and more salt water from below, thus thickening and setting up a return flow that brings in more salt water from the reservoir (representing the open ocean) on the right.
We drop dye crystals to visualize the surface current going out of the fjord and the return flow going in, and draw the profiles on the tank to be able to discuss them later.
Here is a movie of the whole thing:
But there is more to see!
When tipping the tank to empty it, a lot of turbulence was created at the sill (see movie below). While a fjord typically isn’t tipped very often, what we see here is basically what tides do on the sill (see the waves that keep going back and forth over the sill after the tank is initially lifted? Those are exactly like tides). This could purposefully integrated in teaching rather than only happen by accident, those waves could be created just by surface forcing rather than by tipping the tank. That’s a very nice demonstration to explain high mixing rates in the vicinity of steep topography!
And then there is also the issue of very low oxygen concentrations in some Norwegian fjords, and one proposed solution is to bring the river inflow deep down into the fjord. The idea is that the less dense river water will move up to the surface again, thereby creating mixing and oxygenating the stagnant deep water that, in some cases, hasn’t been renewed in many years.
We model this by putting the inflow (the hose) down into the tank and see the expected behaviour. What we also see: Since the water has a quite strong downward component as it enters the fjord, it stirs up a lot of old dye from the bottom. So possibly something to be aware of since there might be stuff dumped into fjords that you might not necessarily want to stir up…
And last, not least, a bonus picture: This is how we measure temperature at GFI. You would think it should be possible to find a smaller thermometer that isn’t an old reversing mercury one? But in any case, this worked very well, too :-)