What Controls an Avalanche?

In an avalanche, grains spontaneously flow when a slope reaches a critical angle, and they continue flowing until they settle at a new, lower angle. Scientists have long debated why this angle mismatch occurs, and, in recent years, the general opinion was that the avalanche’s inertia kept it flowing long enough to settle at a lower angle. But a new experiment, using a slowly-rotating drum similar to the one above*, shows that friction, not inertia, is the key player. 

The researchers used silica beads suspended in water, which allowed them to cleverly control the interparticle friction. In water, silica beads build up negative electrostatic charges, which push the grains apart and eliminate friction. In that frictionless state, the researchers found that the beads tumbled smoothly; their starting and ending angles were always the same. 

By adding salt to the water, the researchers were able to eliminate some of the electrostatic charge and thereby tune the friction. When they did that, the difference between starting and stopping angles came back and grew more substantial as the friction increased. All in all, the results indicate that friction between particles is what makes an avalanche avalanche. (Image credit: J. Gray and V. Chugunovsource; research credit: H. Perrin et al.; via APS Physics; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

* If you’re curious about the patterns in the image, I explain them in this previous post.

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