Diffusive Convection under Rapidly Varying Conditions


In most observations of diffusive convection in the ocean and in lakes, the characteristic diffusive staircases evolve over long time scales under quasi-stationary background conditions. In the Baltic Sea, however, diffusive staircases develop inside the flanks of intermittent intrusions that induce strong inverse temperature gradients over a vertical range of a few meters, varying on time scales of hours to days. Here, results are discussed from an extensive field campaign conducted in summer 2016 in the southern Baltic Sea, including temperature microstructure data from ocean gliders and an autonomous profiling platform. We find conditions favorable for diffusive instability in the vicinity of warm and cold intrusions with density ratios as small as Rρ = 1.3. The staircases evolving under these conditions are characterized by a small number of steps (typically 1–4) with order 0.1–1-m thickness, temperature differences exceeding 1 K across individual diffusive interfaces, and exceptionally large diffusive heat fluxes of order 10 W m−2. The standard heat flux parameterization of Kelley agrees within a factor of 2 with the directly observed interfacial heat fluxes, except for large fluxes at low Rρ, which are strongly overestimated. The glider surveys reveal a surprisingly small lateral coherency of order 100 m of the staircase patterns, and a spreading of the diffusively unstable intrusions across isopycnals.
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