International Journal of Geosciences, 2013, 4, 871-879 Published Online July 2013 (
Features of Internal Waves in a Shoaling Thermocline
Vadim V. Navrotsky1, Valeriy Yu. Liapidevskii2, Elena P. Pavlova1
1V.I.Il’ichev Pacific Oceanological Institute, Far-Eastern Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladivostok, Russia
2M.A. Lavrentiev Institute of Hydrodynamics, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, Novosibirsk, Russia
Received April 13, 2013; revised May 17, 2013; accepted June 14, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Vadim V. Navrotsky et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution Li-
cense, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Observations and numeric modeling of internal wave generation and transformation in the shelf zone of sea show that
the main part of tidal energy is transported to shores in form of internal gravitational waves. Long-term measurements
of temperature and current velocity fluctuations at many levels in the near-bottom thermocline were carried out during
the periods when stable seasonal thermocline was present. Analysis of the measurements permits us to understand
mechanisms of internal wave destruction with turbulent motion generation and corresponding rebuilding of velocity and
density mean fields in the stratified near-bottom layer. Spectral analysis of temperature fluctuations shows that in
shoaling internal waves the low-frequency maxima disappear, maxima at higher frequencies appear, and the spectra
slope in the high frequency range changes with depth. Taking into account the concurrent analysis of near-bottom pres-
sure fluctuations and current velocity fluctuations from surface till bottom we come to the conclusion that breaking in-
ternal waves in a near-bottom thermocline generate not only small-scale three-dimensional turbulence, but also
quasi-horizontal turbulence of larger scales, which considerably contributes into mixing and sediments, alluvium, and
nutrients transport in the shelf zone of sea.
Keywords: Shelf; Shoaling Thermocline; Internal Waves; Turbulence
1. Introduction
Huge energy of tides and inertial motions is dissipated in
oceans’ coastal waters, but in stably stratified flows the
initial stage of the energy transformation is generation of
internal waves (IW) over the continental slope and shelf
break. It is evident that all energy of IW is dissipated
before they can reach shores, but it is little known about
distribution of that energy between turbulence, work
against buoyancy, currents, and transport of bottom
sediments and other admixtures.
Analysis of numeric modeling and the previously ob-
tained data on IW propagation [1,2] have shown that
there may be several different ways of IW evolution, de-
pending on vertical structure of water density, kind of
forcing, and distance between thermocline and bottom.
As an example of our numeric calculations, a part of the
process of IW generation by tidal motions over conti-
nental slope and shelf boundary is shown in Figure 1.
Tidal fluctuations for that run were specified as integral
flow, corresponding to harmonic fluctuations of velocity
in the section from depth of 100 m till surface with the
amplitude 20 cm/s. Density was set constant from surface
till 20 m, then augmenting linearly till 50 m with a gradient
corresponding to the mean Brunt-Vaisala period about 1
min, then again constant till bottom. The continental
slope steepness was 1/10 between the depths 1000 and
100 m. The left boundary is placed in the open sea 100
km from the shelf boundary, which is taken as a point
with the depth 100 m and horizontal coordinate 100 km.
At the moment 24 h after switching on tidal currents
with 12 hours periodicity from the state at rest we can see
a group of IW with rather steep front and appearance of
internal waves of the second vertical mode above the
shelf boundary. At that moment tidal flow is moving to a
shore, the next wave, outlining distinctly an internal tide
(IT), is forming above the shelf break, and the internal
tide’s front moves forward living behind a tail of sinu-
soidal waves with decaying amplitudes (see the moment t =
27 h). After the moments of reverse from rising to low
tide (t = 30 h in our case) the IW phase velocity sharply
decreases and their steepness increases (see the picture at
t = 33 h). In that phase nonlinear effects become maxi-
mum, and in the time span between 33 h and 36 h very
steep high amplitude frontal waves generate packets of
shorter waves, which must fall behind the longer waves.
ong tails of waves with decreasing amplitudes are L
opyright © 2013 SciRes. IJG
Figure 1. Spatial structure of isopycnals fluctuations, representing IW field at different moments after switching on the
12-hour barotropic tide from the state at rest.
formed in the beginning of the next rising tide (see the
moments 36 h and 38 h).
We see that in the process of IW generation the zone
above the shelf break and time spans of reverse from ebb
to rising tide are critical, because there and then the IW
can break due to supercritical steepness. The main char-
acteristic features of the IW fields obtained in our nu-
merical experiments are considerable transformations in
space and time, formation of sharp fronts, resembling
bores or hydraulic jumps, and short-wave packets behind
them. In the runs with sharp thermocline small groups of
solitons were formed, which were transforming into
packets of short sinusoidal waves and back into smaller
solitons in the time of propagation. Breaking of IW was
obtained in the runs with high tidal velocity and sharp
thermocline, and in most cases it occurred at the ebb
phase close to the shelf boundary or far from the shelf
boundary in a shoaling thermocline. The connected with
IW processes in coastal ocean are complex, frequently
including coexistence of wave and turbulence, and they
are the main object of our field investigations.
Far from shores, where the lower boundary of a ther-
mocline is far from bottom, energy of IW serves to
change mean density structure and form vertical fine
structure. These phenomena were explained as a result of
internal wave-induced mixing within the thermocline that
can be effective mechanism for generation of multi-lay-
ered structures (vertical fine structure) in a coastal ocean
[2,3]. The changed vertical structure parametrically changes
IW properties—dispersion relations, lengths, phase and
group velocities, and energy spectrum. These nonlinear
transformations can go on practically without IW break-
ing till the zones, where thermocline begins to feel bot-
tom. A spatial transect of typical temperature structure in
the Japanese Sea shelf zone (south from the cape Gamov)
is shown in Figure 2, where we can see the sharp ther-
mocline with internal waves that is going to contact bot-
tom at depths between 20 and 30 meters.
Evidently, waves with high amplitudes feel bottom
earlier, than waves with small amplitudes. In any case the
final result is turbulent dissipation, but just that wave-
turbulence transition and its consequences are insuffi-
ciently investigated, though they are important for many
geophysical, biological and ecological processes in coa-
stal zones. The deserved attention was paid to them in
theoretical and experimental works during the last decade
[4-11], but in most cases analysis was limited only by
wavy motions. Our main goals are to see how and where
waves become “not waves” and what phenomena ac-
company that process in the near-bottom thermocline.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. IJG
Figure 2. Thermocline and IW shoaling in the shelf zone of the Sea of Japan (09.09.2010).
2. Instrumentation and Observations
In shallow parts of shelf zones nearly homogeneous
temperature and density distributions are observed al-
most till the bottom, and it was generally supposed that
IW can not propagate there. But more detailed laboratory
and in sea measurements [8,12] have shown that wave-
like activity can exist in near-bottom layers rather far
from the zone of thermocline contact with bottom. Here
we are presenting some preliminary results of our meas-
urements in such layers.
Investigations of IW dynamics and transformations in
a shoaling thermocline were carried out on the hydro-
physical polygon “Cape Shulz” of the V.I.Il’ichev Pacific
Oceanological Institute in the southern part of the Peter
the Great Bay, Sea of Japan (Figure 3). The polygon lo-
cation permits not only to adjust and fine-tune new
methods of measurements, but also to test and validate
the modern methods of oceanic processes modeling.
Among hydrodynamic processes that are highly active in
the ocean coastal zone are inertial motions and mesoscale
eddies, internal tides and short-wave packets of IW gen-
erated over the continental slope, and vertical and hori-
zontal turbulence caused by IW breaking and by current
shear instability. Internal gravitational waves in a wide
range of frequencies and wave numbers are the most
permanent process, because water density stable stratifi-
cation is observed at intermediate depths or close to bot-
tom practically in the all seasons.
To perform long-term measurements of IW and turbu-
lence parameters the special equipment was constructed,
including sensors of temperature and pressure, telemetric
system of data gathering and processing, and corre-
sponding soft to obtain detailed information on IW
transformation in the near-shore zone. The basic tem-
perature processor was microchip 1-Wire® Digital
Thermometer DS18B20 of the firm “Dallas semicon-
doctor”. The accuracy of temperature measurements was
Figure 3. Map of region and position of stationary meas-
uring systems.
0.1˚C in the range from 5˚ till +40˚C. Time constant of
the sensors was 3 s, but to protect them from mechanical
damage they were placed into special cylindrical con-
tainers. In this way their time constant in our observa-
tions was 8 s. The characteristic periods of non-tidal IW
in the investigation aria being 10 - 120 min, the presented
system insured measurement of real IW and turbulence
with time-scales greater than 20 s.
The measurements of temperature were performed in
the near-bottom layer at fixed points in the bay Vitiaz (A,
B) and in the sea outside the bay (C) at 20 or 30 levels
with separation of 0.5 m. Signals from the sensors were
transferred to the shore-based computers in two ways—
by underwater cable (in the open sea) and by radio (in the
bay). A special program was developed to decode the
signals, store them in files and present in graphic form on
monitors. In this way constant control of the measuring
process was possible. The information was periodically
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. IJG
transferred via internet into the Institute’s data base. Meas-
urements of current velocity profile with the help of
RDCP-600 and pressure fluctuations with the help of
SBE26 were made close to the strings with thermistors.
Transects with probing of temperature, salinity and other
parameters were fulfilled in different conditions from
July till November.
3. Results and Discussion
In Figure 4 is shown a typical transformation of tem-
perature vertical structure along transects in south-north
direction from the shelf boundary to the point C (Figure
2). The very sharp thermocline, which generally is ob-
served before continental slope, deepens, broadens, and
vertical fine structure is formed. It was shown by Nav-
rotsky et al. [2] that such transformation can be due to
nonlinear interactions of internal waves with the non ho-
mogeneous field of temperature. That process is inten-
sified nearer to the shore because nonlinearity of IW be-
comes stronger in a shoaling thermocline. So in most
cases our strings anchored at depths between 15 and 30
meters embraced the layers, where IW become steep and
can break.
Typical temperature fluctuations, registered by 20
sensors, installed 0.5 m apart from one another in a 10 m
thick near-bottom layer, can be seen in Figure 5 (for
convenience only ten sensors with 1 m separation are
shown). Rather evident are different transformations of
temperature fluctuations with depth: in some cases we
see maximum amplitudes at lower levels (as in the time
spans between 0 - 12 h and around 60 and 72 h), in other
cases maximum fluctuations are at upper levels (as in the
time spans near 36 and 48 hours). Very high amplitudes
of temperature fluctuations (5 - 10 degrees) close to bot-
tom are observed, which correspond, with through-layer
drop of temperature about 10 - 15 degrees, to amplitudes
of vertical motions practically equal to the stratified bot-
tom layer thickness. Most of the significant fluctuations
are coherent at all levels, that is, they are due to internal
The second important feature of the process is alterna-
tion of zones with well defined quasi-periodic fluctua-
tions and zones with absence or very weak fluctuations
(see the range 60 - 120 h and 240 - 276 h). There can be
three causes of that IW intermittence. The first is related
to the fact that prevailing time intervals between such
zones were about 12 and 24 hours or in some other days
about 17 - 18 hours, which are close to the periods of
tidal and inertial motions in the region. And they are just
the periodicities of intense IW packets generation near
the shelf boundary. The second cause may be set-downs
and set-ups of water by off-shore and on-shore winds.
With on-shore wind the near-bottom cold water is dis-
placed to greater distance from a shore, and IW become
impossible in homogeneous warm water at the observa-
tion point. The third and the most interesting cause can
be IW breaking with subsequent turbulent mixing and
density vertical gradients vanishing. The small-scale
three-dimensional turbulence could not be measured with
our devices, but consequences of its action can be visible
in some cases.
A section of temperature field in the time-depth plane
01020300 102030010203001020300 102030010203001020300 102030
0 102030
12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
T, ˚C
H, m
Figure 4. Temperature profiles on a transect from the shelf break to the shore (from left to right). The temperature scale is
shown for profile 12, the othe r s are sequentially shifted by 5˚C. Distance between soundings is 1 mile.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. IJG
Figure 5. Temperature fluctuations in a 10-meter layer of the near-bottom thermocline (September, 2009). The scale for tem-
perature is given for the lower sensor; the others are shifted 5˚C up.
is shown in Figure 6. During the first three days only the
lower part of the thermocline contacts bottom with quasi-
tidal periodicity, but then we see that well mixed warm
water penetrates almost to the bottom, and IW are trans-
forming into moving parcels of stratified cold water. Big
parcels, having about 12-hour time scale, are due to in-
ternal tides (IT), but inside them there are undulations
with much shorter periods. The amplitudes of the all
fluctuations grow gradually. Though these stable and stra-
tified volumes of cold water can produce quasi-periodic
fluctuations of temperature, they are more like “boluses”,
than familiar waves. After 144 h the boluses’ height
quickly grows, and then abrupt transition to quasi homo-
geneous vertical structure takes place near the 168 h,
after which only low and short parcels of cold water
close to bottom are observed. We believe that here we
have just the case of the IW-generated boluses breaking,
and the following process can be interpreted as IW setup
into a shallow zone of warm mixed water, where con-
tinuous thermocline is absent, and IW can not propagate.
Parcels of rather low and short volumes of cold water,
intruding into warm water after 168 h with quasi-tidal
periodicity, seem to support that interpretation.
In numeric simulation and in observations high fre-
quency waves are generated simultaneously with internal
tides or as a result of their nonlinear transformations over
a sloping bottom. The scattering of IT into high-fre-
quency waves is intensified in the process of IT breaking,
and corresponding short boluses can penetrate farther
along sloping bottom and nearer to shores, than the
IT-produced setup. We suggest that two possibilities can
be realized: 1) internal tide breaking directly into small-
scale turbulence and 2) its scattering into high-frequency
short waves with subsequent their breaking into turbu-
lence. In the case of strong thermocline the second possi-
bility is more probable, and its realization is shown in
Figure 7. The packet of short-period waves has an enve-
lope with tidal time-scale (Figure 7(a)), and we can
suppose that the short-period waves are generated as a
result of an internal tide nonlinear transformation. More
detailed picture of short-period waves in Figure 7(b)
shows that they are highly nonlinear on the verge of
breaking and have trapped cores of cold water trans-
ported to shores.
In Figure 8, we can see another possibility: setup of
he short-period waves, which were generated independ- t
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Figure 6. Section of temporal fluctuations of temperature in the 10-meter-thick near-bottom layer (start of observations at
11:35, 31.08.2010).
Figure 7. Fluctuations of isotherms in the 5-meter thick
near-bottom layer: (a) a 12-hour piece of records; (b) re-
finement of the process be tween 4 and 6 hours of the upper
ently of internal tides and can have different from IT
phase velocities. It is evident that in absence of continu-
ous thermocline the propagating volumes of cold water,
which have time-scales from 12 till 2 - 4 hours, are not
real waves. Some of the boluses still have trapped cores
of cold water, but their outer parts are clearly turbulent,
and full breaking with turbulent dissipation must happen
not far from the observation location. The process of
breaking leads to intense vertical mixing and to rapid
transition of internal wave energy into energy of turbu-
lence and advancing bottom currents.
The process of alternation of homogeneous warm wa-
ter from surface to bottom with parcels of much colder
Figure 8. Setup and destruction of short-period internal
waves in the 15 m thick near-bottom layer (start of meas-
urements at 06:22, 01.09.2011).
water of 5 - 10 meters thick will naturally lead to near-
bottom pressure fluctuations. Their effects must be espe-
cially important in shallow waters due to high relation of
IW heights to local depth. Power spectrum of pressure
fluctuations, measured close to bottom at the depth of 20
m during 42 days in August-September, is shown in
Figure 9. Besides distinct maxima at tidal periods 24 and
12 h, we see the peaks, corresponding to long-term fluc-
tuations with the periods 2 and 8 days, which can be
caused by synoptic processes in sea and atmosphere. The
ell pronounced maxima are in the range of internal w
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Figure 9. Spectrum of near-bottom pressure fluctuations at the depth of 20 meters (2008, August-September).
gravitational waves and possible seiches, and there is
rather weak energy attenuation in the range of prevailing
IW periods from 6 hours till 10 minutes.
Special attention should be given to the differences be-
tween our spectra and spectra of pressure fluctuations
obtained by van Haren [10], which were rather smooth in
the range of periods from several hours till several min-
utes. The difference can be due to the fact that van Ha-
ren’s measurements were made in the conditions, when
internal-wave continuum could be formed. In our case
the IW field is highly intermittent and mixed with bo-
luses (see Figures 6-8). Our situation seems to be more
intricate and important for the problem of manifold ef-
fects of IW in near-shore zones. A notable rise of en-
ergy close to the highest frequency in Figure 9 can cor-
respond to the bump in the range of several minutes in
the van Haren’s spectra.
A similar picture can be seen in the spectrum of tem-
perature fluctuations close to bottom at the depth 16 m
(Figure 10). In that case increased levels of energy are
close to the local Brunt-Vaisala frequency. We believe
that such phenomenon can be due to the secondary gen-
eration of short internal waves by turbulent eddies from
the friction layer (wall turbulence). The similar explana-
tion is suggested by van Haren (wave-turbulence cou-
pling), though he does not specify the mechanism of tur-
bulence generation.
The most important feature of temperature fluctuations
that can be seen in Figure 10 is change of their spectral
structure with depth inside the near-bottom layer from
the exponential low f3 at the upper level to f5/3 at the
lower level (0.5 m above the bottom). At the upper level
12 m we see a linear section with the slope 3 in the
range from 17 h to about 1 h (with a small peak around
2.5 h), then considerable energy elevation in the range 50 -
20 min and again quasi-linear section with the same
slope 3 from 20 till 3 min. From 3 min till the end point
corresponding to 2 min the spectrum leveling begins to
show. Spectra for the deeper levels 13 and 14 m retain
the same form only slightly diminishing the bulge in the
range 50 - 20 min. At levels 15 and 16 m the spectra be-
come quasi-linear with a general slope about 5/3 except
for the high frequency ending part (4 - 2 min) with 3
rather notable maxima.
The slope 3 for internal waves in shelf zones was ob-
tained in the result of many measurements analyzed in [2]
and some other papers, but here we have rather different
picture. The spectral form similar to spectra at levels 12,
13 and 14 m with a bulge between 50 - 20 min is typical
for most of our measurements of temperature fluctuations
in near-bottom layers, and we are going to propose its
theoretical explanation in a separate paper. Following the
theoretical considerations in [13], the spectrum propor-
tional to f5/3 can be produced by horizontal turbulence
with the rate of kinetic energy dissipation as determining
The transition of energy from internal waves in upper
parts of the near-bottom thermocline into horizontal tur-
bulence in its lower parts seems natural from the physical
point of view. In highly nonlinear and breaking near-
bottom internal waves the upper water particles overrun
the lower ones. That leads, as a consequence of continu-
ity, to high upward vertical velocities inside the wave
body and to compensating horizontal velocities in its
lower layers. In that way quasi-horizontal turbulence
must be generated in close to bottom layers in addition to
small-scale three-dimensional turbulence, characteristic
for bottom friction layers.
To show more clearly that process we calculated av-
eraged by 3 hours horizontal and vertical momentum
fluxes from surface till bottom (Figure 11). The hori-
zontal momentum flux, represented as averaged product
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Figure 10. Spectra of temperature fluctuations at different
levels. The frequency scale is given for the 16 m level, for
each next level it is shifted tw o orde rs up.
of current horizontal components u and v in Figure 11(a),
is very high in the upper layer due to the surface wave
turbulence. It quickly falls down with depth, and be-
comes very small in the stratified layer below 4 m. That
means that internal waves in that layer are weakly
nonlinear. But at the level 20 m (i.e. in the near-bottom
layer 2 - 3 m thick) correlations <uv> between horizontal
current components sharply increase, and we should in-
terpret the process as rather intense horizontal turbulence
caused by breaking internal waves in near-bottom strati-
fied layers.
Vertical momentum flux, represented by averaged
product of horizontal velocity scalar IVI and vertical
velocity w (Figure 11(b)), is of the same order as the
caused by surface wave turbulence flux in the upper layer.
Comparing horizontal and vertical fluxes at levels 2 m
and 20 m we can conclude that relative role of vertical
flux in the near-bottom layer is higher than in the wind
wave mixed upper layer. That means, that fluxes caused
by internal waves in near-bottom stratified layers are
more three-dimensional, than surface wave fluxes in mix-
ed surface layers.
Figure 11. 3-hours averaged horizontal (a) and vertical (b) momentum fluxes at different levels during 34 days (15.08.2009-
18.09.2009). The scale on y-axis is given for the 20 m level, the others are sequentially shifted up by 200 cm2/c2. Bottom depth
is 22 m.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. IJG
Joint action of small-scale three-dimensional and lar-
ger-scale horizontal turbulence leads to quick formation
of mixed waters, saturated by nutrients and minerals of
terrestrial as well as sea origin. Leading role in spreading
these waters over the shelf zone belongs to tides, so tidal
fronts and related to them biological processes are of
special interest [14]. Tidal fronts are not lines, but more
or less wide zones with intense horizontal and vertical
motions. Our observational results are meant to see in
more detail the processes in such zones and thus help in
their modeling.
4. Conclusions
Though a more full and more detailed processing of our
experimental data is forthcoming, we can derive several
interesting results from the presented here preliminary
analysis of processes in the near-bottom thermocline: 1)
Packets of intense high-frequency internal waves can
appear and disappear in shallow waters depending on the
phase of barotropic tide and on the wind driven onset and
set-down of near-shore waters. In most of our previous
observations of IW in the upper thermocline with lower
boundary about 40 - 60 m from bottom [2], the IW dis-
tribution in time over the investigated area was much
more homogeneous, depending mainly on large-scale
changes in wind velocity. Hence we can suppose that
analyzed here IW in the near-bottom thermocline are due
mainly to nonlinear flow of energy from low-frequency
long IW and to stratified tidal current interaction with
bottom. 2) IW breaking in the near-bottom layers leads
not only to vertical, but also to horizontal turbulence in
the range of IW periods. The resulting mixed waters,
having intermediate density between upper and bottom
layers in the open sea, are flowing back from shores in
the ebb phase at intermediate depths. In this way the
mean vertical density gradient is reduced with time, fa-
cilitating vertical mixing, which is very important for the
all physical and biological processes in the shelf zone. 3)
The internal wave breaking in the near-bottom thermo-
cline, producing peaks of pressure fluctuations and high
horizontal velocities in splashes must be important factor
of bottom deposits movement and bottom morphology
The work was supported by the Russian Foundation
for Basic Research, Grant No. 07-01-00149 and with fi-
nancial support of the Far-Eastern Branch of Russian
Academy of Sciences (grant No. 12-I I-CO-07-020) and
Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences (grant
No. 15).
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