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The instability and breaking of long internal waves

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 November 2005

Environmental Fluid Mechanics Laboratory, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94309-4020, USA
Environmental Fluid Mechanics Laboratory, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94309-4020, USA


Laboratory experiments are carried out to determine the nature of internal wave breaking and the limiting wave steepness for progressive, periodic, lowest-mode internal waves in a two-layer, miscible density stratification. Shoaling effects are not considered. The waves investigated here are long relative to the thickness of the density interface separating the two fluid layers. Planar laser-induced fluoresence (PLIF) flow visualization shows that wave breaking most closely resembles a Kelvin–Helmholtz shear instability originating in the high-shear wave crest and trough regions. However, this instability is strongly temporally and spatially modified by the oscillations of the driving wave shear. Unlike a steady stratified shear layer, the wave instability discussed here is not governed by the canonical $\it Ri{=}1/4$ stability limit. Instead, the wave time scale (the time scale of the destabilizing shear) imposes an additional constraint on instability, lowering the critical Richardson number below 1/4. Experiments were carried out to quantify this instability threshold, and show that, for the range of wavenumbers considered in this study, the critical wave steepness at which the wave breaking occurs is wavenumber-dependent (unlike surface waves). The corresponding critical wave Richardson numbers at incipient wave breaking are well below 1/4, in consonance with a modified instability analysis based on results from stratified shear flow instability theory.

© 2005 Cambridge University Press

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