Small Barriers Trigger Liftoff of Unconfined Dilute Heated Laboratory Density Currents

Friday, 18 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
Kristen Fauria1, Benjamin James Andrews2 and Michael Manga1, (1)University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, United States, (2)Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, United States
Dilute pyroclastic density currents (PDCs) are hot, turbulent, particle-laden flows that propagate because they are denser than air. PDCs can traverse tens to hundreds of kilometers and surmount ridges 100s of m tall, yet the effects of complex topography on PDC liftoff and runout distance are uncertain. Here we used scaled laboratory experiments to explore how barriers affect dilute density current dynamics and the occurrence of liftoff. We created dilute density currents by heating and suspending 20 μm diameter talc in air in an 8.5 x 6.1 x 2.6 m tank. We scaled the currents with respect to Froude, densimetric and thermal Richardson, particle Stokes and Settling numbers such that they were dynamically similar to natural PDCs. While currents were fully turbulent, their Reynolds numbers were not as high as those for natural PDCs. We performed the first set of experiments in a laterally unconfined volume, used laser sheets to illuminate the currents, measured bulk sedimentation rates down the current centerlines, and positioned four to twenty-four cm tall ridge-like barriers in the path of the currents. We found that relatively small barriers (~ half the current height) caused PDC liftoff. By comparison, conservation of kinetic and potential energy predicts that incompressible density currents are able to surmount barriers twice their height. Furthermore, we observed increased sedimentation immediately upstream of barriers and conclude that small barriers initiated buoyancy reversal through a combination of increased air entrainment and sedimentation. We conducted a second set of experiments with the same thermal scaling and mass flux rates but where the currents were laterally confined within a 0.6 m wide channel. We found that small barriers also triggered liftoff of confined currents, but that the body of these currents reattached after liftoff. Those results suggest that lateral confinement inhibits buoyancy reversal by limiting the surface area of the current-air interface and air entrainment. Real dilute PDCs that originate in confined valleys may therefore have different fates and longer runout distances than those on unconfined planes.