Leaving flatland: Diagnostics for Lagrangian coherent structures in three-dimensional flows

Mohamed H.M. Sulman, Helga S. Huntley, B. L. Lipphardt, A. D. Kirwan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Finite-time Lyapunov exponents (FTLE) are often used to identify Lagrangian Coherent Structures (LCS). Most applications are confined to flows on two-dimensional (2D) surfaces where the LCS are characterized as curves. The extension to three-dimensional (3D) flows, whose LCS are 2D structures embedded in a 3D volume, is theoretically straightforward. However, in geophysical flows at regional scales, full prognostic computation of the evolving 3D velocity field is not computationally feasible. The vertical or diabatic velocity, then, is either ignored or estimated as a diagnostic quantity with questionable accuracy. Even in cases with reliable 3D velocities, it may prove advantageous to minimize the computational burden by calculating trajectories from velocities on carefully chosen surfaces only. When reliable 3D velocity information is unavailable or one velocity component is explicitly ignored, a reduced FTLE form to approximate 2D LCS surfaces in a 3D volume is necessary. The accuracy of two reduced FTLE formulations is assessed here using the ABC flow and a 3D quadrupole flow as test models. One is the standard approach of knitting together FTLE patterns obtained on adjacent surfaces. The other is a new approximation accounting for the dispersion due to vertical (u,v) shear. The results are compared with those obtained from the full 3D velocity field. We introduce two diagnostic quantities to identify situations when a fully 3D computation is required for an accurate determination of the 2D LCS. For the ABC flow, we found the full 3D calculation to be necessary unless the vertical (u,v) shear is sufficiently small. However, both methods compare favorably with the 3D calculation for the quadrupole model scaled to typical open ocean conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-92
Number of pages16
JournalPhysica D: Nonlinear Phenomena
StatePublished - Sep 1 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Statistical and Nonlinear Physics
  • Mathematical Physics
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Applied Mathematics


Dive into the research topics of 'Leaving flatland: Diagnostics for Lagrangian coherent structures in three-dimensional flows'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this