environmental fluid mechanics

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Environmental fluid mechanics

The study of the flows of air and water, of the species carried by them, and of their interactions with geological, biological, social, and engineering systems in the vicinity of a planet's surface. The environment on the Earth is intimately tied to the fluid motion of air (atmosphere), water (oceans), and species concentrations (air quality). In fact, the very existence of the human race depends upon its abilities to cope within the Earth's environmental fluid systems.

Meteorologists, oceanologists, geologists, and engineers study environmental fluid motion. Weather and ocean-current forecasts are of major concern, and fluid motion within the environment is the main carrier of pollutants. Biologists and engineers examine the effects of pollutants on humans and the environment, and the means for environmental restoration. Air quality in cities is directly related to the airborne spread of dust particles and of exhaust gases from automobiles. The impact of pollutants on drinking-water quality is especially important in the study of ground-water flow. Likewise, flows in porous media are important in oil recovery and cleanup. Lake levels are significantly influenced by climatic change, a relationship that has become of some concern in view of the global climatic changes that may result from the greenhouse effect (whereby the Earth's average temperature increases because of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmo-sphere).

Scales of motion

Environmental fluid mechanics deals with the study of the atmosphere, the oceans, lakes, streams, surface and subsurface water flows (hydrology), building exterior and interior airflows, and pollution transport within all these categories. Such motions occur over a wide range of scales, from eddies on the order of centimeters to large recirculation zones the size of continents. This range accounts in large part for the difficulties associated with understanding fluid motion within the environment. In order to impart motion (or inertia) to the atmosphere and oceans, internal and external forces must develop. Global external forces consist of gravity, Coriolis, and centrifugal forces, and electric and magnetic fields (to a lesser extent). The internal forces of pressure and friction are created at the local level, that is, on a much smaller spatial scale; likewise, these influences have different time scales. The winds and currents arise as a result of the sum of all these external and internal forces.

Governing equations

The foundations of environmental fluid mechanics lie in the same conservation principles as those for fluid mechanics, that is, the conservation of mass, momentum (velocity), energy (heat), and species concentration (for example, water, humidity, other gases, and aerosols). The differences lie principally in the formulations of the source and sink terms within the governing equations, and the scales of motion. These conservation principles form a coupled set of relations, or governing equations, which must be satisfied simultaneously. The governing equations consist of nonlinear, independent partial differential equations that describe the advection and diffusion of velocity, temperature, and species concentration, plus one scalar equation for the conservation of mass. In general, environmental fluids are approximately newtonian, and the momentum equation takes the form of the Navier-Stokes equation. An important added term, neglected in small-scale flow analysis, is the Coriolis acceleration, 2&OHgr; × V, where &OHgr; is the angular velocity of the Earth and V is the flow velocity. See Conservation laws (physics), Conservation of energy, Conservation of mass, Conservation of momentum, Diffusion, Navier-Stokes equation, Newtonian fluid

Fortunately, not every term in the Navier-Stokes equation is important in all layers of the environment. The key to being able to obtain solutions to the Navier-Stokes equation lies in determining which terms can be neglected in specific applications. For convenience, problems can be classified on the basis of the order of importance of the terms in the equations utilizing nondimensional numbers based on various ratios of values. See Dimensionless groups


Because of the scales of motion and time associated with the environment, and the somewhat random nature of the fluid motion, it is difficult to conduct full-scale, extensive experimentation. Likewise, some quantities (such as vorticity or vertical velocity) resist direct observations. It is necessary to rely on the availability of past measurements and reports (as sparse as they may be) to establish patterns, especially for climate studies. However, some properties can be measured with confidence.


There are two types of modeling strategies: physical and mathematical. Physical models are small-scale (laboratory) mockups that can be measured under variable conditions with precise instrumentation. Such modeling techniques are effective in examining wind effects on buildings and species concentrations within city canyons (flow over buildings). Generally, a large wind tunnel is needed to produce correct atmospheric parameters (such as Reynolds number) and velocity profiles. Mathematical models (algebra- and calculus-based) can be broken down further into either analytical models, in which an exact solution exists, or numerical models, whereby approximate numerical solutions are obtained using computers.

environmental fluid mechanics

[in‚vī·ərn‚ment·əl ‚flü·əd mi′kan·iks]
(fluid mechanics)
The study of the flows of air and water, of the species carried by them (especially pollution), and of their interactions with geological, biological, social, and engineering systems in the vicinity of a planet's surface.
References in periodicals archive ?
The CRAY J916 was developed specifically for compute-intensive applications such as the environmental modeling being done by Stanford's Environmental Fluid Mechanics Laboratory," said John Carlson, Cray Research chairman and chief executive officer.
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