Brace For Impact

Two men jumping into a mountain lake.

What happens in the moment before an object hits the water? That’s the question at the heart of a new study exploring how water deforms before an object’s impact. The researchers dropped circular disks onto a pool of water and, using a new reflection-based technique, measured micron-sized deflections in the water’s surface before impact, as seen below.

Animation showing the deflection of the water's surface just before a circular disk impacts it.
Movie of the water surface’s deflection as the circular disk approaches. Look for distortions in the grid pattern.

The deflections are caused by the air getting squeezed out of the space between the oncoming object and the water surface. The team found that the deformation isn’t uniform. The air squeezing out along the edges moves fast enough to trigger a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability and actually pull up the water surface. So when the disk hits, it impacts along its edges first and traps an air bubble underneath. (Image credits: divers – E. Carter, experiment – U. Jain et al.; research credit and submission: U. Jain et al.)

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