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A Laboratory Study of Nonlinear Western Boundary Currents, with Application to the Gulf Stream Separation due to Inertial Overshooting


Various dynamical aspects of nonlinear western boundary currents (WBCs) have been investigated experimentally through physical modeling in a 5-m-diameter rotating basin. The motion of a piston with a velocity up that can be as low as up = 0.5 mm s−1 induces a horizontally unsheared current of homogeneous water that, flowing over a topographic beta slope, experiences westward intensification. First, the character of WBCs for various degrees of nonlinearity is investigated. By varying up, flows ranging from the highly nonlinear inertial Charney regime down to a weakly nonlinear regime can be simulated. In the first case, the dependence of zonal length scales on up is found to be in agreement with Charney’s theory; for weaker flows, a markedly different functional dependence emerges describing the initial transition toward the linear, viscous case. This provides an unprecedented coverage of nonlinear WBC dependence on an amplitude parameter in terms of experimental data. WBC separation from a wedge-shaped continent past a cape (simulating Cape Hatteras) due to inertial overshooting is then analyzed. By increasing current speed, a critical behavior is identified according to which a very small change of up marks the transition from a WBC that follows the coast past the cape to a WBC (nearly dynamically similar to a full-scale Gulf Stream) that separates from the cape without any substantial deflection, as with the Gulf Stream Extension. The important effect of the deflection angle of the continent is analyzed as well. Finally, the qualitative effect of a sloping sidewall along a straight coast is considered: the deflection of the flow away from the western wall due to the tendency to preserve potential vorticity clearly emerges.


Academic article





  • SINTEF Ocean / Fisheries and New Biomarine Industry
  • Italy



Published in

Journal of Physical Oceanography




American Meteorological Society






2063 - 2079

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