Shear, Stability and Mixing within the Ice-Shelf-Ocean Boundary Current

Adrian Jenkins*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
33 Downloads (Pure)


When the inclined base of an ice shelf melts into the ocean, it induces both a statically-stable stratification and a buoyancy-forced, sheared flow along the interface. Understanding how those competing effects influence the dynamical stability of the boundary current is the key to quantifying the turbulent transfer of heat from far-field ocean to ice. The implications of the close coupling between shear, stability and mixing are explored with the aid of a one-dimensional numerical model that simulates density and current profiles perpendicular to the ice. Diffusivity and viscosity are determined using a mixing length model within the turbulent boundary layer and empirical functions of the gradient Richardson number in the stratified layer below. Starting from rest, the boundary current is initially strongly stratified and dynamically stable, slowly thickening as meltwater diffuses away from the interface. Eventually, the current enters a second phase where dynamical instability generates a relatively well-mixed, turbulent layer adjacent to the ice, while beneath the current maximum, strong stratification suppresses mixing in the region of reverse shear. Under weak buoyancy forcing the timescale for development of the initial dynamical instability can be months or longer, but background flows, which are always present in reality, provide additional current shear that greatly accelerates the process. A third phase can be reached when the ice shelf base is sufficiently steep, with dynamical instability extending beyond the boundary layer into regions of geostrophic flow, generating a marginally-stable pycnocline through which the heat flux is a simple function of ice-ocean interfacial slope.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2129–2148
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Physical Oceanography
Issue number7
Early online date10 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2021


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