Snowflake Velocimetry

With a fixed background and some software, a smartphone video can reveal snowfall flow patterns.

In our era of remote learning, students don’t always have a chance to do hands-on lab experiments in the usual fashion. But that doesn’t mean they can’t explore important flow diagnostic techniques. Here a simple smartphone video of snow falling gets turned into a lesson on particle image velocimetry, or PIV, a major technique for measuring flow velocities.

A nearby house acts as a fixed backdrop, and by comparing snowflake positions from one frame to the next, students can measure the instantaneous flow patterns in the snowfall. Of course, that’s a tedious task to do by hand, but luckily there are computer programs that do it automatically. Simply run the smartphone video through the software, and analyze the patterns it reveals!

As a bonus, students don’t have to get distracted by the complexities of laser sheets and flow seeding that are normally a part of PIV. Instead, the flow and the lighting are already right outside their window, and they can concentrate instead on learning the principles of the technique and how to use the software. (Image and submission credit: J. Stafford)

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