Geologic nozzles


  • Susan Werner Kieffer


Sonic velocities of geologic fluids, such as volcanic magmas and geothermal fluids, can be as low as 1 m/s. Critical velocities in large rivers can be of the order of 1–10 m/s. Because velocities of fluids moving in these settings can exceed these characteristic velocities, sonic and supersonic gas flow and critical and supercritical shallow-water flow can occur. The importance of the low characteristic velocities of geologic fluids has not been widely recognized, and as a result, the importance of supercritical and supersonic flow in geological processes has generally been underestimated. The lateral blast at Mount St. Helens, Washington, propelled a gas heavily laden with dust into the atmosphere. Because of the low sound speed in this gas (about 100 m/s), the flow was internally supersonic. Old Faithful Geyser, Wyoming, is a converging-diverging nozzle in which liquid water refilling the conduit during the recharge cycle changes during eruption into a two-phase liquid-vapor mixture with a very low sound velocity. The high sound speed of liquid water determines the characteristics of harmonic tremor observed at the gyeser during the recharge interval, whereas the low sound speed of the liquid-vapor mixture influences the fluid flow characteristics of the eruption. At the rapids of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, Arizona, the channel is constricted into the shape of a converging-diverging nozzle by debris flows that enter from tributary canyons. Both subcritical and supercritical flow occur within the rapids. The transport capacity in the rapids can be so great that the river contours the channel to a characteristic shape. This shape can be used to interpret the flood history of the Colorado River over the past 10³–105 years. The unity of fluid mechanics in these three natural phenomena is provided by the well-known analogy between gas flow and shallow-water flow in converging-diverging nozzles.