An experimental and theoretical study of the mixing produced by a plume rising in a confined stratified environment is presented. As a result of the pre-existing stable stratification, the plume penetrates only part way into the region; at an intermediate level it intrudes laterally forming a horizontal layer. As time evolves, this layer of mixed fluid is observed to increase in thickness. The bottom front advects downward in a way analogous to the first front in the filling box of Baines & Turner (1969), while the lateral spreading of the plume occurs at an ever-increasing level and an ascending top front results. We develop a model of this stratified filling box; the model predicts the rate at which the two fronts advance into the environment.
It is found that stratification in the environment, when smooth, has no significant influence on the dynamics of the descending front. We show that the rate of rise of the ascending front is determined by the turbulent mixing occurring at the spreading level. Entrainment of environmental fluid from above into the overshooting plume is significant; as a result, a density interface develops at this level. Asymptotically, the system reaches a state in which a bottom convecting layer, with an almost homogeneous density, deepens in a stratified background. The model proposed for this large-time behaviour is based on the simple energetic formulation that a constant fraction of the kinetic energy supplied by the plume, for mixing across the interface, is converted into potential energy of the convective layer. Our experimental results suggest an efficiency of approximately 50 % for this conversion.
We discuss our results in the light of previous studies on turbulent penetrative convection and conclude that the theory developed should be valid for an intermediate range of values of the Richardson number characterizing the dynamic conditions at the interface. The model is applied quantitatively to the process of cooling of a room wherein stratification is relevant. The geological problem of replenishment of a magma chamber by a light input of magma is also analysed.