The Real Raindrop

What is the shape of a falling raindrop? Surface tension keeps only the smallest drops spherical as they fall; larger drops will tend to flatten. The very largest drops stretch and inflate with air as they fall, as shown in the image above. This shape is known as a bag and consists of a thin shell of water with a thicker rim at the bottom. As the bag grows, its shell thins until it ruptures, just like a soap bubble. The rim left behind destabilizes due to the surface-tension-driven Plateau-Rayleigh instability and eventually breaks up into smaller droplets. This bag instability limits the size of raindrops and breaks large drops into a multitude of smaller ones. The initial size of the drop in the image was 12 mm, falling with a velocity of 7.5 m/s. The interval between each image is 1 ms. (Photo credit: E. Reyssat et al.)

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