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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Internal Wave Generation by Convection

  • Author(s): Lecoanet, Daniel
  • Advisor(s): Quataert, Eliot
  • et al.

In nature, it is not unusual to find stably stratified fluid adjacent to convectively unstable fluid. This can occur in the Earth's atmosphere, where the troposphere is convective and the stratosphere is stably stratified; in lakes, where surface solar heating can drive convection above stably stratified fresh water; in the oceans, where geothermal heating can drive convection near the ocean floor, but the water above is stably stratified due to salinity gradients; possible in the Earth's liquid core, where gradients in thermal conductivity and composition diffusivities maybe lead to different layers of stable or unstable liquid metal; and, in stars, as most stars contain at least one convective and at least one radiative (stably stratified) zone. Internal waves propagate in stably stratified fluids. The characterization of the internal waves generated by convection is an open problem in geophysical and astrophysical fluid dynamics.

Internal waves can play a dynamically important role via nonlocal transport. Momentum transport by convectively excited internal waves is thought to generate the quasi-biennial oscillation of zonal wind in the equatorial stratosphere, an important physical phenomenon used to calibrate global climate models. Angular momentum transport by convectively excited internal waves may play a crucial role in setting the initial rotation rates of neutron stars. In the last year of life of a massive star, convectively excited internal waves may transport even energy to the surface layers to unbind them, launching a wind. In each of these cases, internal waves are able to transport some quantity—momentum, angular momentum, energy—across large, stable buoyancy gradients. Thus, internal waves represent an important, if unusual, transport mechanism.

This thesis advances our understanding of internal wave generation by convection. Chapter 2 provides an underlying theoretical framework to study this problem. It describes a detailed calculation of the internal gravity wave spectrum, using the Lighthill theory of wave excitation by turbulence. We use a Green's function approach, in which we convolve a convective source term with the Green's function of different internal gravity waves. The remainder of the thesis is a circuitous attempt to verify these analytical predictions.

I test the predictions of Chapter 2 via numerical simulation. The first step is to identify a code suitable for this study. I helped develop the Dedalus code framework to study internal wave generation by convection. Dedalus can solve many different partial differential equations using the pseudo-spectral numerical method. In Chapter 3, I demonstrate Dedalus' ability to solve different equations used to model convection in astrophysics. I consider both the propagation and damping of internal waves, and the properties of low Rayleigh number convective steady states, in six different equation sets used in the astrophysics literature. This shows that Dedalus can be used to solve the equations of interest.

Next, in Chapter 4, I verify the high accuracy of Dedalus by comparing it to the popular astrophysics code Athena in a standard Kelvin–Helmholtz instability test problem. Dedalus performs admirably in comparison to Athena, and provides a high standard for other codes solving the fully compressible Navier–Stokes equations. Chapter 5 demonstrates that Dedalus can simulate convective adjacent to a stably stratified region, by studying convective mixing near carbon flames. The convective overshoot and mixing is well-resolved, and is able to generate internal waves.

Confident in Dedalus' ability to study the problem at hand, Chapter 6 describes simulations inspired by water experiments of internal wave generation by convection. The experiments exploit water’s unusual property that its density maximum is at 4C, rather than at 0C. We use a similar equation of state in Dedalus, and study internal gravity waves generation by convection in a water-like fluid. We test two models of wave generation: bulk excitation (equivalent to the Lighthill theory described in Chapter 2), and surface excitation. We find the bulk excitation model accurately reproduces the waves generated in the simulations, validating the calculations of Chapter 2.

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