von karman vortex street

Soap films provide a simple and convenient method for flow visualization. Here an allen wrench swept upward through a soap film leaves a distinctive wake. This trail of counter-rotating vortices is known as a von Karman vortex street. Their spacing depends on the wrench’s size and speed. Although the von Karman vortex street is usually associated with the wake of cylinders, it shows up often in nature as well, especially in the clouds trailing rocky islands. (Photo credit: P. Nathan)

Von Karman vortex streets are a pattern of alternating vortices shed in the wake of a bluff body. They’re commonly associated with cylinders and can be demonstrated in simulation and in the lab. (They even show up in supersonic flows.) But they also show up in nature quite frequently, like in this cloud pattern off Central America. Such wakes often occur downstream of rocky, volcanic islands that rise above the smooth ocean surface and disrupt the atmosphere’s boundary layer. The same phenomenon is responsible for the “singing” of electrical lines on a windy day, and I’ve even heard it make the spokes on my bicycle wheel sing in a crosswind. (Photo credit: R. Mastracchio; via @BadAstronomer; submitted by jshoer)


This numerical simulation shows a von Karman vortex street in the wake of a bluff body. As flow moves over the object, vortices are periodically shed off the object’s upper and lower surfaces at a steady frequency related to the velocity of the flow. The simulation takes place in a channel; note how the thickness of the boundary layers on the walls increases with downstream distance, forcing a slight constriction on the vortex street in the freestream.