Phenomena

Kelvin-Helmholtz in the Lab

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The Kelvin-Helmholtz instability looks like a series of overturning ocean waves and occurs between layers of fluids undergoing shear. This video has a great lab demo of the phenomenon, including the set-up prior to execution. When the tank is tilted, the denser dyed salt water flows left while the fresh water flows to the right. These opposing flow directions shear the interface between the two fluids, which, once a certain velocity is surpassed, generates an instability in the interface. Initially, this disturbance is much too small to be seen, but it grows at an exponential rate. This is why nothing appears to happen for many seconds after the tilt before the interface suddenly deforms, overturns, and mixes. In actuality, the unstable perturbation is present almost immediately after the tilt, but it takes time for the tiny disturbance to grow. The Kelvin-Helmholtz instability is often seen in clouds, both on Earth and on other planets, and it is also responsible for the shape of ocean waves. (Video credit: M. Hallworth and G. Worster)

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