This paper formulates a model of mixing in a stratified and turbulent fluid. The model uses the horizontally averaged vertical buoyancy gradient and the density of turbulent kinetic energy as variables. Heuristic ‘mixing-length’ arguments lead to a coupled set of parabolic differential equations. A particular form of mechanical forcing is proposed; for certain parameter values the relationship between the buoyancy flux and the buoyancy gradient is non-monotonic and this leads to an instability of equilibria with linear stratification. The instability results in the formation of steps and interfaces in the buoyancy profile. In contrast to previous ones, the model is mathematically well posed and the interfaces have an equilibrium thickness that is much larger than that expected from molecular diffusion.
The turbulent mixing process can take one of three forms depending on the strength of the initial stratification. When the stratification is weak, instability is not present and mixing smoothly homogenizes the buoyancy. At intermediate strengths of stratification, layers and interfaces form rapidly over a substantial interior region bounded by edge layers associated with the fluxless condition of the boundaries. The interior pattern subsequently develops more slowly as interfaces drift together and merge; simultaneously, the edge layers advance inexorably into the interior. Eventually the edge layers meet in the middle and the interior pattern of layers is erased. Any remaining structure subsequently decays smoothly to the homogeneous state. Both the weak and intermediate stratified cases are in agreement with experimental phenomenology. The model predicts a third case, with strong stratification, not yet found experimentally, where the central region is linearly stable and no steps form there. However, the edge layers are unstable; mixing fronts form and then erode into the interior.
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