From the Butterfly”s Wing to the Tornado: Predicting Turbulence

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February 4, 2018 | Originally published by Date Line: February 4 on

Scientists predict future behavior of turbulent fluid flow using regularities reminiscent of an inverted pendulum.

An old adage holds that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil can trigger a tornado in Texas weeks later. Though chaos theory says it’s basically impossible to compute exactly how that might happen, scientists are making advances in getting math around the swirly phenomenon behind it called turbulence.

Recent progress by physicists from the Georgia Institute of Technology could one day help sharpen weather forecasts and extend their range by making better use of masses of weather and climate data to predict turbulence and resulting violent storms.

Turbulence can curve as a puff of air, swirl past a river bend or churn as a hurricane, and though its curlicues may appear random, turbulence lays down signature patterns that the physicists are investigating. They have developed a simple mathematical model that has helped them show how turbulent flows will evolve over intervals.

And, in a novel experiment, they verified their predictions physically in a two-dimensional turbulent flow produced in a lab.