kelvin helmholtz instability

Sixty Symbols has a great new video explaining the laboratory set-up for demoing a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability. You can see a close-up from the demo above. Here the pink liquid is fresh water and the blue is slightly denser salt water. When the tank holding them is tipped, the lighter fresh water flows upward while the salt water flows down. This creates a big velocity gradient and lots of shear at the interface between them. The situation is unstable, meaning that any slight waviness that forms between the two layers will grow (exponentially, in this case). Note that for several long seconds, it seems like nothing is happening. That’s when any perturbations in the system are too small for us to see. But because the instability causes those perturbations to grow at an exponential rate, we see the interface go from a slight waviness to a complete mess in only a couple of seconds. The Kelvin-Helmholtz instability is incredibly common in nature, appearing in clouds, ocean waves, other planets’ atmospheres, and even in galaxy clusters! (Image and video credit: Sixty Symbols)

youtube

The Juno spacecraft continues to send back incredible photos of Jupiter’s atmosphere. This video animates images from the sixth close pass of Jupiter to give you a sense of what Juno sees as it swoops by our system’s largest planet. The trajectory passes from the north pole to the south, showing Jupiter’s whitish zones, dark belts, and massive storms. Up close Jupiter looks like an Impressionist painting, all vortices and shear instabilities. The large white spots you see are enormous counterclockwise rotating vortices known as anticyclones – many of them larger than our entire planet. (Video credit:  NASA / SwRI / MSSS / G. Eichstädt / S. Doran)

youtube

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)

youtube

Though often spotted in water waves or clouds, the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability is easily demonstrated in the lab as well. Here a tank with two layers of liquid - fresh water on top and denser blue-dyed saltwater on the bottom - is used to generate the instability. When level, the two layers are stationary and stable due to their stratification. Upon tilting, the denser blue liquid sinks to the lower end of the tank while the freshwater shifts upward. When the relative velocity of these two fluids reaches a critical point, their interface becomes unstable, forming the distinctive wave crests that tumble over to mix the two layers. (Video credit: M. Stuart)