We investigate the stability of gravity currents, in a rotating system, that are infinitely long and uniform in the direction of flow and for which the current depth vanishes on both sides of the flow. Thus, owing to the role of the Earth's rotation in restraining horizontal motions, the currents are bounded on both sides by free streamlines, or sharp density fronts. A model is used in which only one layer of fluid is dynamically important, with a second layer being infinitely deep and passive. The analysis includes the influence of vanishing layer depth and large inertial effects near the edges of the current, and shows that such currents are always unstable to linearized perturbations (except possibly in very special cases), even when there is no extremum (or gradient) in the potential vorticity profile. Hence the established Rayleigh condition for instability in quasi-geostrophic models, where inertial effects are assumed to be vanishingly small relative to Coriolis effects, does not apply. The instability does not depend upon the vorticity profile but instead relies upon a coupling of the two free streamlines. The waves permit the release of both kinetic and potential energy from the mean flow. They can have rapid growth rates, the e-folding time for waves on a current with zero potential vorticity, for example, being close to one-half of a rotation period. Though they are not discussed here, there are other unstable solutions to this same model when the potential vorticity varies monotonically across the stream, verifying that flows involving a sharp density front are much more likely to be unstable than flows with a small ratio of inertial to Coriolis forces.
Experiments with a current of buoyant fluid at the free surface of a lower layer are described, and the observations are compared with the computed mode of maximum growth rate for a flow with a uniform potential vorticity. The current is observed to be always unstable, but, contrary to the predicted behaviour of the one-layer coupled mode, the dominant length scale of growing disturbances is independent of current width. On the other hand, the structure of the observed disturbances does vary: when the current is sufficiently narrow compared with the Rossby deformation radius (and the lower layer is deep) disturbances have the structure predicted by our one-layer model. The flow then breaks up into a chain of anticyclonic eddies. When the current is wide, unstable waves appear to grow independently on each edge of the current and, at large amplitude, form both anticyclonic and cyclonic eddies in the two-layer fluid. This behaviour is attributed to another unstable mode.