Published in Journal of Fluid Mechanics, Volume 408, January 1, 2000, pages 149-177. Copyright © 2000 Cambridge University Press. The definitive version is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0022112099007661.
NOTE: At the time of publication, the author Paul Choboter was not yet affiliated with Cal Poly.
The baroclinic stability characteristics of axisymmetric gravity currents in a rotating system with a sloping bottom are determined. Laboratory studies have shown that a relatively dense fluid released under an ambient fluid in a rotating system will quickly respond to Coriolis effects and settle to a state of geostrophic balance. Here we employ a subinertial two-layer model derived from the shallow-water equations to study the stability characteristics of such a current after the stage at which geostrophy is attained. In the model, the dynamics of the lower layer are geostrophic to leading order, but not quasi-geostrophic, since the height deflections of that layer are not small with respect to its scale height. The upper-layer dynamics are quasi-geostrophic, with the Eulerian velocity field principally driven by baroclinic stretching and a background topographic vorticity gradient. Necessary conditions for instability, a semicircle-like theorem for unstable modes, bounds on the growth rate and phase velocity, and a sufficient condition for the existence of a high-wavenumber cutoff are presented. The linear stability equations are solved exactly for the case where the gravity current initially corresponds to an annulus flow with parabolic height profile with two incroppings, i.e. a coupled front. The dispersion relation for such a current is solved numerically, and the characteristics of the unstable modes are described. A distinguishing feature of the spatial structure of the perturbations is that the perturbations to the downslope incropping are preferentially amplified compared to the upslope incropping. Predictions of the model are compared with recent laboratory data, and good agreement is seen in the parameter regime for which the model is valid. Direct numerical simulations of the full model are employed to investigate the nonlinear regime. In the initial stage, the numerical simulations agree closely with the linear stability characteristics. As the instability develops into the finite-amplitude regime, the perturbations to the downslope incropping continue to preferentially amplify and eventually evolve into downslope propagating plumes. These finally reach the deepest part of the topography, at which point no more potential energy can be released.