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Turbulent mixing by breaking gravity waves


The characteristics of turbulence caused by three-dimensional breaking of internal gravity waves beneath a critical level are investigated by means of high-resolution numerical simulations. The flow evolves in three stages. In the first one the flow is two-dimensional: internal gravity waves propagate vertically upwards and create a convectively unstable region beneath the critical level. Convective instability leads to turbulent breakdown in the second stage. The developing three-dimensional mixed region is organized into shear-driven overturning rolls in the plane of wave propagation and into counter-rotating streamwise vortices in the spanwise plane. The production of turbulent kinetic energy by shear is maximum. In the last stage, shear production and mechanical dissipation of turbulent kinetic energy balance.

The evolution of the flow depends on topographic parameters (wavelength and amplitude), on shear and stratification as well as on viscosity. Here, only the implications of the viscosity for the instability structure and evolution in terms of the Reynolds number are considered. Smaller viscosity leads to earlier onset of convective instability and overturning waves. However, viscosity retards the onset of smaller-scale three-dimensional instabilities and leads to a reduced momentum transfer to the mean flow below the critical level. Hence, the formation of secondary overturning rolls is sustained by lower viscosity.

The budgets of total kinetic and potential energies are calculated. Although the domain-averaged turbulent kinetic energy is less than 1% of the total kinetic energy, it is strong enough to form a patchy and intermittent turbulent mixed layer below the critical level.

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Journal of Fluid Mechanics
  • ISSN: 0022-1120
  • EISSN: 1469-7645
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-fluid-mechanics
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