How Erosion Shapes a Flow

Erosion creates all manner of strange shapes as wind and water cut away at solids. But why does the interaction of the fluid and solid result in the geometries we observe? Above is a collage from an experiment in which a soft clay sphere was immersed in a water tunnel. After 70 minutes, the sphere had worn into a roughly conical body (Image A) reminiscent of a re-entry capsule. Images B and C show instantaneous streaklines around the clay at 10 minutes and 70 minutes, respectively. Images D and E show diagrams of the flowfield seen in B and C. Fast-moving flow above and below the stagnation point (SP) wears the front of the body into a conical shape, whereas the recirculating vortices aft of the separation point (SL) create a sloped shoulder and flattened back in the clay. The results are consistent with a model in which erosion tries to create uniform shear stress at the solid surface – essentially the process is keeping the frictional force between the fluid and air constant along the surface. This makes sense. If a region’s shear stress is higher, it will be worn more quickly than the surrounding solid, causing it to recede and experience decreased shear stress (relative to the surrounding area) as a result. (Image credit: L. Ristroph et al.)

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