A wave interaction approach to studying non-modal homogeneous and stratified shear instabilities

Anirban Guha (Lead / Corresponding author), Gregory A. Lawrence

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


Homboe (Geophys. Publ., vol. 24, 1962, pp. 67-112) postulated that resonant interaction between two or more progressive, linear interfacial waves produces exponentially growing instabilities in idealized (broken-line profiles), homogeneous or density-stratified, inviscid shear layers. Here we have generalized Holmboe's mechanistic picture of linear shear instabilities by (i) not initially specifying the wave type, and (ii) providing the option for non-normal growth. We have demonstrated the mechanism behind linear shear instabilities by proposing a purely kinematic model consisting of two linear, Doppler-shifted, progressive interfacial waves moving in opposite directions. Moreover, we have found a necessary and sufficient (N&S) condition for the existence of exponentially growing instabilities in idealized shear flows. The two interfacial waves, starting from arbitrary initial conditions, eventually phase-lock and resonate (grow exponentially), provided the N&S condition is satisfied. The theoretical underpinning of our wave interaction model is analogous to that of synchronization between two coupled harmonic oscillators. We have re-framed our model into a nonlinear autonomous dynamical system, the steady-state configuration of which corresponds to the resonant configuration of the wave interaction model. When interpreted in terms of the canonical normal-mode theory, the steady-state/resonant configuration corresponds to the growing normal mode of the discrete spectrum. The instability mechanism occurring prior to reaching steady state is non-modal, favouring rapid transient growth. Depending on the wavenumber and initial phase-shift, non-modal gain can exceed the corresponding modal gain by many orders of magnitude. Instability is also observed in the parameter space which is deemed stable by the normal-mode theory. Using our model we have derived the discrete spectrum non-modal stability equations for three classical examples of shear instabilities: Rayleigh/Kelvin-Helmholtz, Holmboe and Taylor-Caulfield. We have shown that the N&S condition provides a range of unstable wavenumbers for each instability type, and this range matches the predictions of the normal-mode theory.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)336-364
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Fluid Mechanics
Early online date18 Aug 2014
Publication statusPublished - 25 Sept 2014


  • instability
  • shear layers
  • waves/free-surface flows

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Mechanical Engineering


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