Chris Johnson


Granular segregation in geophysical flows

Rapid natural flows of granular material (such as debris flows, rock avalanches and lahars) frequently contain particles of a very wide range of sizes. Granular segregation contributes to a heterogeneous distribution of particles within the flow, which consequently alters the flow dynamics.

In Johnson et al. (2012) we study the process of granular segregation in large-scale (~100m long) debris-flow experiments by combining measurements of the flow velocity field, the (spatially-varying) particle size distribution within the deposit, and the trajectories of marked tracer particles that were incorporated into the flow. We explain how particle size segregation and the velocity field at the front of a propagating debris flow combine to produce coarse, stationary levees, which channelise subsequent flow. This work was in collaboration with Dick Iverson and colleagues at the US Geological Survey.

USGS Debris Flow Flume Segregation-induced granular fingering (Woodhouse et al. 2012) Fingered pyroclastic flow deposits at Mount St. Helens (USGS CVO)

These coarse levees closely related to finger-like morphology observed in pyroclastic flow deposits. In Woodhouse et al. (2012) we develop a coupled model for the segregation and flow of a bidisperse mixture of grains, and find that numerical solutions exhibit fingered structures very similar to those observed in nature. A stability analysis of the model evinces the origin of these structures, and indicates that the wavelength of the instability is governed by terms that are commonly omitted in depth-averaged models. In Baker et al. (2016) we show that a viscosity obtained through the depth-averaging of the rheology provides one such mechanism for regularisation.

My collaborators on this work include Nico Gray, Peter Kokelaar, Dick Iverson, Mark Woodhouse and Anthony Thornton.

Gravity currents and intrusions

Gravity currents and intrusions are predominantly horizontal spreading flows driven by a difference in density (or in density gradient) between the current and the surrounding fluid. They occur frequently and at very large scales in the atmosphere and oceans. My work focuses on the construction and solution of depth-integrated models for these high Reynolds-number flows.

In Johnson & Hogg (2013) we derive a depth-integrated model for gravity currents that includes the effects of entrainment of ambient fluid into the currents. The entrained fluid not only dilutes the current, but also alters the dynamics, resulting in new asymptotic solutions for the flow at late times.

In Johnson et al. (2015) we investigate the spreading behaviour of volcanic ash clouds, modelled as intrusions that are fed by a continuous flux from a point source. We find solutions for both axisymmetric and wind-blown plumes, and couple these to a model for the distribution of ash within the plume. We find, contrary to previous assumptions, that flows in the absence of wind are non-self-similar, implying that simple scaling arguments and “box models” lead to incorrect deductions. In Pouget et al. 2016 we find good agreement between this model and observations of volcanic plumes, and additionally show how our model predicts the time-dependent establishment of the umbrella cloud, and the continued evolution of the cloud after the eruption ceases.

Schematic of a volcanic intrusion. (C. Johnson) Kliuchevskoi, 1994 (NASA/Johnson space centre)

Motivated by the failure of box models in this context, in Ungarish et al. (2015) we develop a simple hybrid model (a development of the box model idea) for axisymmetric, continuously-supplied intrusions, and extend this to gravity currents, particle-driven flows, and (in Ungarish et al. 2016) rotating systems.

My collaborators on this work include Andrew Hogg, Marius Ungarish, Herbert Huppert, Steve Sparks, Jeremy Phillips and Marcus Bursik.