Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 July 2013
We present an experimental and theoretical study of a thin, viscous fluid layer that flows radially under gravity from a point source into a denser inviscid fluid layer of uniform depth above a rigid horizontal surface. Near the source, the viscous layer lies in full contact with the surface, forming a vertical-shear-dominated viscous gravity current. At a certain distance from the source, the layer detaches from the surface to form a floating current whose dynamics are controlled by the viscous stresses due to longitudinal extension. We describe the dynamics of the grounded and floating components using distinct thin-layer theories. Separating the grounded and floating regions is the freely moving line of detachment, or grounding line, whose evolution we model by balancing the horizontal forces between the two regions. Using numerical and asymptotic analysis, we calculate the evolution of the system from a self-similar form at early times towards a steady state at late times. We use our solutions to illustrate how three-dimensional stresses within marine ice sheets, such as that of West Antarctica, can lead to stabilization of the grounding line. To assess the validity of the assumptions underlying our model, we compare its predictions with data from a series of laboratory experiments.