In a stably stratified shear layer, thin vorticity layers (‘baroclinic layers’) are produced by buoyancy effects and strain in between the Kelvin–Helmholtz vortices. A two-dimensional numerical study is conducted, in order to investigate the stability of these layers. Besides the secondary Kelvin–Helmholtz instability, expected but never observed previously in two-dimensional numerical simulations, a new instability is also found.
The influence of the Reynolds number (Re) upon the dynamics of the baroclinic layers is first studied. The layers reach an equilibrium state, whose features have been described theoretically by Corcos & Sherman (1976). An excellent agreement between those predictions and the results of the numerical simulations is obtained. The baroclinic layers are found to remain stable almost up to the time the equilibrium state is reached, though the local Richardson number can reach values as low as 0.05 at the stagnation point. On the basis of the work of Dritschel et al. (1991), we show that the stability of the layer at this location is controlled by the outer strain field induced by the large-scale Kelvin–Helmholtz vortices. Numerical values of the strain rate as small as 3% of the maximum vorticity of the layer are shown to stabilize the stagnation point region.
When non-pairing flows are considered, we find that only for Re ≤ 2000 does a secondary instability eventually amplify in the layer. (Re is based upon half the initial vorticity thickness and half the velocity difference at the horizontally oriented boundaries.) This secondary instability is not of the Kelvin–Helmholtz type. It develops in the neighbourhood of convectively unstable regions of the primary Kelvin–Helmholtz vortex, apparently once a strong jet has formed there, and moves along the baroclinic layer while amplifying. It next perturbs the layer around the stagnation point and a secondary instability, now of the Kelvin–Helmholtz type, is found to develop there.
We next examine the influence of a pairing upon the flow behaviour. We show that this event promotes the occurrence of a secondary Kelvin–Helmholtz instability, which occurs for Re ≥ 400. Moreover, at high Reynolds number (≥ 2000), secondary Kelvin–Helmholtz instabilities develop successively in the baroclinic layer, at smaller and smaller scales, thereby transferring energy towards dissipative scales through a mechanism eventually leading to turbulence. Because the vorticity of such a two-dimensional stratified flow is no longer conserved following a fluid particle, an analogy with three-dimensional turbulence can be drawn.