One of the most commonly observed fluid instabilities is the Rayleigh-Taylor instability, which occurs between fluids of differing densities. It’s most often seen when a denser fluid sits over a lower density fluid. In the video above, this is demonstrated experimentally: a lower density green fluid mixes in with the clear, higher density fluid. This is the classical case in which each initial region of fluid is uniform in density prior to the removal of the barrier. But what happens when each zone has its own variation in density? This is the second case. Before the barrier is removed, each region of the tank has a varying—or stratified—fluid density. In this case, the unmixed fluids are stably stratified, meaning that the fluid density increases with depth. At the barrier interface, the two separate fluids are still unstably stratified—with the denser fluid on top—so when the barrier is removed, the Rayleigh-Taylor instability still drives their mixing. Because of the stable stratification within the original unmixed fluids, the mixing region after the barrier’s removal is more limited. (Video credit: M. D. Wykes and S. B. Dalziel; via PhysicsCentral by APS)
Stuck here on Earth, it’s hard to know sometimes how greatly gravity affects the behavior of fluids. Fortunately, astronaut Don Pettit enjoys spending his free time on the International Space Station playing with physics. In his latest video, he shows some awesome examples of what is possible with a thin film of water—not a soap film like we make here on Earth—in microgravity. He demonstrates vibrational modes, droplet collision and coalescence, and some fascinating examples of Marangoni convection.
Last week, Birmingham, Alabama got treated to a special cloudy day, thanks to some Kelvin-Helmholtz waves, shown above. When a layer of faster moving fluid shears a slower moving fluid, this instability can form and cause some spectacular mixing. In this case, the lower, slower fluid was cool and moist enough to contain clouds, enabling us to see the effect with the naked eye. The same mechanism is responsible for the shape of breaking ocean waves and can even be seen in the atmospheres of gas giants like Saturn and Jupiter. (submitted by David B)