On the equilibration of a symmetrically unstable front via a secondary shear instability

(Taylor, John R. and Ferrari, Raffaele), Journal of Fluid Mechanics, vol. 622, pp. pages, 2009.


The equilibration of a symmetrically unstable density front is examined using linear stability theory and nonlinear numerical simulations. The initial state, chosen to approximate conditions in the surface ocean, consists of a weakly stratified mixed layer above a strongly stratified thermocline. Each layer has a uniform horizontal density gradient and a velocity field in thermal wind balance. The potential vorticity (PV) in the mixed layer is negative, indicating conditions favourable for symmetric instability. Once the instability reaches finite amplitude, a secondary Kelvin–Helmholtz (K-H) instability forms. Linear theory accurately predicts the time and the wavenumber at which the secondary instability occurs. Following the secondary instability, small-scale turbulence injects positive PV into the mixed layer from the thermocline and from the upper boundary, resulting in a rapid equilibration of the flow as the PV is brought back to zero. While the physical parameters used in this study correspond to typical conditions near a surface ocean front, many of the conclusions apply to symmetric instabilities in the atmosphere.

doi = 10.1017/S0022112008005272

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