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Fingering convection in the stably stratified layers of planetary cores

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Celine Guervilly



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


Stably-stratified layers may be present at the top of the electrically-conducting fluid layers of many planets either because the temperature gradient is locally subadiabatic or because a stable composition gradient is maintained by the segregation of chemical elements. Here we study the double-diffusive processes taking place in such a stable layer, considering the case of Mercury's core where the temperature gradient is stable but the composition gradient is unstable over a 800km-thick layer. The large difference in the molecular diffusivities leads to the development of buoyancy-driven instabilities that drive radial flows known as fingering convection. We model fingering convection using hydrodynamical simulations in a rotating spherical shell and varying the rotation rate and the stratification strength. For small Rayleigh numbers (i.e. weak background temperature and composition gradients), fingering convection takes the form of columnar flows aligned with the rotation axis and with an azimuthal size comparable with the layer thickness. For larger Rayleigh numbers, the flows retain a columnar structure but the azimuthal size is drastically reduced leading to thin sheet-like structures that are elongated in the meridional direction. The azimuthal length decreases when the thermal stratification increases, following closely the scaling law expected from the linear non-rotating planar theory (Stern, 1960). We find that the radial flows always remain laminar with local Reynolds number of order 1-10. Equatorially-symmetric zonal flows form due to latitudinal variations of the axisymmetric composition. The zonal velocity exceeds the non-axisymmetric velocities at the largest Rayleigh numbers. We discuss plausible implications for planetary magnetic fields.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Guervilly C

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets

Year: 2022

Volume: 127

Issue: 11

Print publication date: 01/11/2022

Online publication date: 28/10/2022

Acceptance date: 12/01/2022

Date deposited: 21/10/2022

ISSN (print): 2169-9097

ISSN (electronic): 2169-9100

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Inc.


DOI: 10.1029/2022JE007350


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Funder referenceFunder name
NE/M017893/1Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
UK Science and Technology Facilities Council