Abrupt transitions and hysteresis in thermohaline laboratory models

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Whitehead, John A.
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Thermohaline circulation
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Ocean circulation
As a driving parameter is slowly altered, thermohaline ocean circulation models show either a smooth evolution of a mode of flow or an abrupt transition of temperature and salinity fields from one mode to another. An abrupt transition might occur at one value or over a range of the driving parameter. The latter has hysteresis because the mode in this range depends on the history of the driving parameter. Although assorted ocean circulation models exhibit abrupt transitions, such transitions have not been directly observed in the ocean. Therefore, laboratory experiments have been conducted to seek and observe actual (physical) abrupt thermohaline transitions. An experiment closely duplicating Stommel’s box model possessed abrupt transitions in temperature and salinity with distinct hysteresis. Two subsequent experiments with more latitude for internal circulation in the containers possessed abrupt transitions over a much smaller range of hysteresis. Therefore, a new experiment with even more latitude for internal circulation was designed and conducted. A large tank of constantly renewed freshwater at room temperature had a smaller cavity in the bottom heated from below with saltwater steadily pumped in. The cavity had either a salt mode, consisting of the cavity filled with heated salty water with an interface at the cavity top, or a temperature mode, in which the heat and saltwater were removed from the cavity by convection. There was no measurable hysteresis between the two modes. Possible reasons for such small hysteresis are discussed.
Author Posting. © American Meteorological Society, 2009. This article is posted here by permission of American Meteorological Society for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Journal of Physical Oceanography 39 (2009): 1231-1243, doi:10.1175/2008JPO4087.1.
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Journal of Physical Oceanography 39 (2009): 1231-1243
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