On the stability of ocean overflows
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The stability of a hydraulically driven sill flow in a rotating channel with smoothly varying cross-section is considered. The smooth topography forces the thickness of the moving layer to vanish at its two edges. The basic flow is assumed to have zero potential vorticity, as is the case in elementary models of the hydraulic behaviour of deep ocean straits. Such flows are found to always satisfy Ripa's necessary condition for instability. Direct calculation of the linear growth rates and numerical simulation of finite-amplitude behaviour suggests that the flows are, in fact, always unstable. The growth rates and nonlinear evolution depend largely on the dimensionless channel curvature κ=2αg′/f2, where 2α is the dimensional curvature, g′ is the reduced gravity, and f is the Coriolis parameter. Very small positive (or negative) values of κ correspond to dynamically wide channels and are associated with strong instability and the breakup of the basic flow into a train of eddies. For moderate or large values of κ, the instability widens the flow and increases its potential vorticity but does not destroy its character as a coherent stream. Ripa's condition for stability suggests a theory for the final width and potential vorticity that works moderately well. The observed and predicted growth in these quantities are minimal for κ≥1, suggesting that the zero-potential-vorticity approximation holds when the channel is narrower than a Rossby radius based on the initial maximum depth. The instability results from a resonant interaction between two waves trapped on opposite edges of the stream. Interactions can occur between two Kelvin-like frontal waves, between two inertia–gravity waves, or between one wave of each type. The growing disturbance has zero energy and extracts zero energy from the mean. At the same time, there is an overall conversion of kinetic energy to potential energy for κ>0, with the reverse occurring for κ<0. When it acts on a hydraulically controlled basic state, the instability tends to eliminate the band of counterflow that is predicted by hydraulic theory and that confounds hydraulic-based estimates of volume fluxes in the field. Eddy generation downstream of the controlling sill occurs if the downstream value of κ is sufficiently small.
Author Posting. © Cambridge University Press, 2008. This article is posted here by permission of Cambridge University Press for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Journal of Fluid Mechanics 602 (2008): 241-266, doi:10.1017/S0022112008000827.