On the Causes of Pulsing in Continuous Turbidity Currents

Ray Kostaschuk, Mohamad M. Nasr-Azadani, Eckart Meiburg, Taoyuan Wei, Zhongyuan Chen, Maria Eletta Negretti, Jim Best, Jeff Peakall, Daniel R. Parsons

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Velocity pulsing has previously been observed in continuous turbidity currents in lakes and reservoirs, even though the input flow is steady. Several different mechanisms have been ascribed to the generation of these fluctuations, including Rayleigh-Taylor (RT) instabilities that are related to surface lobes along the plunge line where the river enters the receiving water body and interfacial waves such as Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities. However, the understanding of velocity pulsing in turbidity currents remains limited. Herein we undertake a stability analysis for inclined flows and compare it against laboratory experiments, direct numerical simulations, and field data from Lillooet Lake, Canada, and Xiaolangdi Reservoir, China, thus enabling an improved understanding of the formative mechanisms for velocity pulsing. Both RT and Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities are shown to be prevalent in turbidity currents depending on initial conditions and topography, with plunge line lobes and higher bulk Richardson numbers favoring RT instabilities. Other interfacial wave instabilities (Holmboe and Taylor-Caulfield) may also be present. While this is the most detailed analysis of velocity pulsing conducted to date, the differences in spatial scales between field, direct numerical simulations, and experiments and the potential complexity of multiple processes acting in field examples indicate that further work is required. In particular, there is a need for simultaneous field measurements at multiple locations within a given system to quantify the spatiotemporal evolution of such pulsing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2827-2843
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2018


  • Rayleigh-Taylor and Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities
  • laboratory and field experiments
  • numerical
  • velocity pulsing in continuous turbidity currents

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Geophysics


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