Motivated by the importance of small-scale turbulent diapycnal mixing to the closure of the large-scale meridional overturning circulation (MOC) of the oceans, we focus on a model problem which allows us to address the fundamental fluid mechanics that is expected to be characteristic of the oceanographic regime. Our model problem is one in which the initial conditions consist of a stably stratified parallel shear flow which evolves into the turbulent regime through the growth of a Kelvin–Helmholtz wave to finite amplitude followed by transition to turbulence. Through both linear stability analysis and direct numerical simulations (DNS), we investigate the secondary instabilities and the turbulent mixing at a fixed high Reynolds number and for a range of Prandtl numbers. We demonstrate that the oceanographically expected high value of the Prandtl number has a profound influence on the nature of the secondary instabilities that govern the transition process. Specifically through non-separable linear stability analysis, we discover new characteristics for the shear-aligned convective instability such that it is modified into a mixed mode that is driven both by static instability and by shear. The growth rate and ultimate strength of this mode are both strongly enhanced at higher
while the growth rate and ultimate strength of the stagnation point instability (SPI), which may compete for control of the transition process, are simultaneously impeded. Of equal importance is the fact that, for higher
, the characteristic length scales associated with the dominant mixed mode of instability decrease and therefore there ceases to be a strong scale selectivity. In the limit of much higher
, we conjecture that a wide range of spatial scales become equally unstable so as to support an ‘ultraviolet catastrophe’, in which a direct injection of energy occurs into a broad range of scales simultaneously. We further establish the validity of these analytical results through a series of computationally challenging DNS analyses, and provide a detailed analysis of the efficiency of the turbulent mixing of the density field that occurs subsequent to transition and of the entrainment of fluid into the mixing layer from the high-speed flanks of the shear flow. We show that the mixing efficiency decreases monotonically with increase of the molecular value of the Prandtl number and the expansion of the shear layer is reduced as such entrainment diminishes.