Research

Pathlines vs. Streaklines

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When considering fluid motion, there are many ways to describe trajectories through the flow. One is the pathline, the trajectory followed by an individual fluid particle. Imagine releasing a rubber duck down a stream. Following the duck’s position over time would give you a pathline. Now imagine that instead of releasing a single rubber duck you release lots of them – say one every half-second from the exact same starting spot. You would end up with a line of rubber ducks stretching downstream, each of them sharing the same origin but with a different starting time. This is called a streakline. Would the streakline of rubber ducks follow the same trajectory as the lone duck? Not if the flow is time-varying! In fact, for unsteady flows, pathlines and streaklines can give completely different pictures of a flow, as illustrated in the video above. Knowing and understanding the difference between these types of trajectories is extremely important when it comes interpreting flow visualizations in unsteady flows because some visualization methods produce pathlines and others produce streaklines. (Video credit: V. Miller and M. Mungal)

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