Cloud streets—long rows of counter-rotating air parallel to the ground in the planetary boundary layer—are thought to form as a result of cold air blowing over warm waters while caught beneath a warmer layer of air, a temperature inversion. As moisture evaporates from the warmer water, it creates thermal updrafts that rise through the atmosphere until they hit the temperature inversion. With nowhere to go, the warmer air tends to lose its heat to the surroundings and sink back down, creating a roll-like convective cell. (Photo credits: NASA Terra, NASA Aqua, and Tatiana Gerus)
Not only is this demonstration one of my favorites, it’s a reader favorite, too. Even though I posted it nearly a year ago, I’ve had it resubmitted over and over. Here’s what I originally wrote:
Laminar flow (as opposed to turbulence) has the interesting property of reversibility. In this video, physicists demonstrate how flow between concentric cylinders can be reversed such that the initial fluid state is obtained (to within the limits of molecular diffusion, of course!)
For more examples, see the first half of this video.
The results of those videos might be surprising, but they highlight the difference between laminar flow and turbulence. In laminar flow, the motion of the dye is caused by molecular diffusion and momentum diffusion, the latter of which is exactly reversible. In turbulence, much of the fluid motion is tied up in momentum convection, which is irreversible. This is why you can “unstir” the glycerin but not the milk in your coffee.
The auroras at Earth’s poles are much more than pretty lights. This video explains their formation; fluid mechanics (specifically magnetohydrodynamics) play a major role in the convective transport of heat inside the sun as well as the movement of the plasma that makes up a solar storm that interacts with Earth’s magnetic field and produces the auroras.
Solutal convection, rather than relying on temperature gradients, can occur due to gradients in concentration or in surface tension. While less spectacular than this previously posted video, this video contains a nice simplified explanation of the mechanism. And, as noted in the video, this is a demo you can do yourself at home.
Hotwire anemometry is used in experimental fluid dynamics to measure velocities with high temporal resolution. The boundary layer crosswire probe shown here was used for turbulence research. Between the prongs, which are about the thickness of a sewing needle, are tiny wires about 3 microns in diameter. A human hair is about 80 microns in diameter. Hotwires actually measure voltage; when part of an electrical circuit, the hotwire’s temperature rises above ambient. As air flows over the wire, it cools, which causes the wire’s resistance to drop. By tracking this change in resistance, it is possible to determine the speed of the air moving over the wire.
When a fluid in a gravitational field is heated from below, it can develop a Rayleigh-Benard instability which causes the formation of convection cells as in the video above. The hexagonal shape of the cells is due to the boundary conditions of the fluid. It’s possible to form other shapes like spirals. The same mechanism drives the formation of granules on the photospheres of stars like our sun.