Settling and clustering of snow particles in atmospheric turbulence

Cheng Li, Kaeul Lim, Tim Berk, Aliza Abraham, Michael Heisel, Michele Guala, Filippo Coletti, Jiarong Hong*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


The effect of turbulence on snow precipitation is not incorporated into present weather forecasting models. Here we show evidence that turbulence is in fact a key influence on both fall speed and spatial distribution of settling snow. We consider three snowfall events under vastly different levels of atmospheric turbulence. We characterize the size and morphology of the snow particles, and we simultaneously image their velocity, acceleration and relative concentration over vertical planes approximately in area. We find that turbulence-driven settling enhancement explains otherwise contradictory trends between the particle size and velocity. The estimates of the Stokes number and the correlation between vertical velocity and local concentration are consistent with the view that the enhanced settling is rooted in the preferential sweeping mechanism. When the snow vertical velocity is large compared to the characteristic turbulence velocity, the crossing trajectories effect results in strong accelerations. When the conditions of preferential sweeping are met, the concentration field is highly non-uniform and clustering appears over a wide range of scales. These clusters, identified for the first time in a naturally occurring flow, display the signature features seen in canonical settings: Power-law size distribution, fractal-like shape, vertical elongation and large fall speed that increases with the cluster size. These findings demonstrate that the fundamental phenomenology of particle-laden turbulence can be leveraged towards a better predictive understanding of snow precipitation and ground snow accumulation. They also demonstrate how environmental flows can be used to investigate dispersed multiphase flows at Reynolds numbers not accessible in laboratory experiments or numerical simulations.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberA49
JournalJournal of Fluid Mechanics
StatePublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • atmospheric flows
  • particle/fluid flow
  • turbulent boundary layers


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