We revisit the issue of whether thermal fluctuations are relevant for incompressible fluid turbulence and estimate the scale at which they become important. As anticipated by Betchov in a prescient series of works more than six decades ago, this scale is about equal to the Kolmogorov length, even though that is several orders of magnitude above the mean free path. This result implies that the deterministic version of the incompressible Navier-Stokes equation is inadequate to describe the dissipation range of turbulence in molecular fluids. Within this range, the fluctuating hydrodynamics equation of Landau and Lifschitz is more appropriate. In particular, our analysis implies that both the exponentially decaying energy spectrum and the far-dissipation-range intermittency predicted by Kraichnan for deterministic Navier-Stokes will be generally replaced by Gaussian thermal equipartition at scales just below the Kolmogorov length. Stochastic shell model simulations at high Reynolds numbers verify our theoretical predictions and reveal furthermore that inertial-range intermittency can propagate deep into the dissipation range, leading to large fluctuations in the equipartition length scale. We explain the failure of previous scaling arguments for the validity of deterministic Navier-Stokes equations at any Reynolds number and we provide a mathematical interpretation and physical justification of the fluctuating Navier-Stokes equation as an "effective field theory"valid below some high-wave-number cutoff Λ, rather than as a continuum stochastic partial differential equation. At Reynolds number around a million, comparable to that in Earth's atmospheric boundary layer, the strongest turbulent excitations observed in our simulation penetrate down to a length scale of about eight microns, still two orders of magnitude greater than the mean free path of air. However, for longer observation times or for higher Reynolds numbers, more extreme turbulent events could lead to a local breakdown of fluctuating hydrodynamics.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Statistical and Nonlinear Physics
- Statistics and Probability
- Condensed Matter Physics