Flow-induced reconfiguration of buoyant and flexible aquatic vegetation

Mitul Luhar and Heidi M. Nepf

Limnol. Oceanogr., 56(6), 2011, 2003-2017 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2011.56.6.2003

ABSTRACT: Plant posture can play a key role in the health of aquatic vegetation, by setting drag, controlling light availability, and mediating the exchange of nutrients and oxygen. We study the flow-induced reconfiguration of buoyant, flexible aquatic vegetation through a combination of laboratory flume experiments and theoretical modeling. The laboratory experiments measure drag and posture for model blades that span the natural range for seagrass stiffness and buoyancy. The theoretical model calculates plant posture based on a force balance that includes posture-dependent drag and the restoring forces due to vegetation stiffness and buoyancy. When the hydrodynamic forcing is small compared to the restoring forces, the model blades remain upright and the quadratic law, FxU2, predicts the drag well (Fx is drag, U is velocity). When the hydrodynamic forcing exceeds the restoring forces, the blades are pushed over by the flow, and the quadratic drag law no longer applies. The model successfully predicts when this transition occurs. The model also predicts that when the dominant restoring mechanism is blade stiffness, reconfiguration leads to the scaling FxU4/3. When the dominant restoring mechanism is blade buoyancy, reconfiguration can lead to a sub-linear increase in drag with velocity, i.e., FxUa with a < 1. Laboratory measurements confirm both these predictions. The model also predicts drag and posture successfully for natural systems ranging from seagrasses to marine macroalgae of more complex morphology.

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