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In the cases of nonlinear acoustics, why is shock formation unlikely when the dispersion is strong when compared to the nonlinearity of the wave?

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The nonlinear term or steepening term, $\left( \mathbf{V} \cdot \nabla \right) \mathbf{V}$, determines the rate of steepening of a wave. This can be balanced/offset by loss terms like dispersion (e.g., $\propto \ \beta \ \partial_{x}^{3} v$, see Update below), diffusion, viscosity (e.g., $\propto \ \nu \ \partial_{x}^{2} v$), resistivity, friction (e.g., $\propto \ \zeta \ v$), etc. If the loss term dominates over the nonlinear term, then the wave cannot steepen as there is too much damping. If the loss term balances the nonlinear term, a shock wave can form as the steepening wave approaches a gradient catastrophe (i.e., point where wave breaking occurs).

You can think of dispersive effects as acting to "spread out" the spatial scales in the wave while the nonlinear term acts to "focus" the spatial scales. In fully nonlinear systems, the loss terms are often dependent on the gradient in the spatial scale of the wave front. This means that the terms are often small/negligible until the spatial scales of the wave front become small, thus the gradients large.

- from: Sagdeev, [1966] in Rev. Plasma Phys. Vol. 4, pg. 21 (of 69)
Interestingly, dispersion is not an irreversible term because it increases the order of the derivatives in the equations by an even number. The other loss terms I mentioned increase the order of the derivatives in the equations by an odd number, thus introducing irreversibility. A link to Sagdeev's article can be found here. Though the link does not contain the PDF file, unfortunately.


Dispersive Wave Example

An example is a dispersive sound wave that has a dispersion relation approximated by: $$ \omega\left( k \right) \simeq k \ C_{s} - \beta \ k^{3} $$ where $C_{s}$ is the phase speed of the mode (here the sound speed), $\beta$ is the dispersive parameter (often assumed to be small), $k$ is the wavenumber, and $\omega$ is the wave angular frequency. In general, a sound wave would steepen in the absence of losses because $C_{s}$ is proportional to the wave amplitude.

For instance, in the animation below one can see that the initially symmetric soliton pulse begins to steepen (i.e., the gradient scale length decreases asymmetrically) as it propagates. This is because the peak of the pulse propagates faster than the lower amplitude parts of the pulse. Thus, the higher amplitude parts of the wave can out run the lower amplitude parts, which results in a sort of pile-up in the direction of propagation. If no losses were present, the higher amplitude(faster) parts of the pulse could overrun the lower amplitude(slower) parts, resulting in a multi-valued solution. This is the gradient catastrophe or wave breaking, to which I eluded above.

In a collisionless plasma, the dispersive term can actually regulate the steepening of a shock front. This occurs because the shock wave is a nonlinearly steepened dispersive fast/magnetosonic wave (which happens to be a compressive version of a whistler mode wave under the right conditions). The dispersive nature of the magnetosonic-whistler wave is such that smaller(larger) wavelengths(frequencies) propagate faster than the converse. So as the mode steepens, the smaller gradient scale length of the steepened edge causes the edge to couple to shorter and shorter wavelengths. The end result can be a wave train of magnetosonic-whistler waves upstream of the shock ramp. If those waves carry energy/momentum away from the shock front, then they will act as a loss mechanism that can limit the steepening of the shock ramp.

Korteweg-de Vries Equation

In the case of one of the forms of the Korteweg-de Vries equation, we can write: $$ \partial_{t} v + \left( C_{s} + v \right) \partial_{x} v + \beta \ \partial_{x}^{3} v = 0 $$ where $\partial_{j}$ = $\partial/\partial \ j$ (i.e., I am not using covariant vs. contravariant forms here, just being lazy), $\partial_{x}^{3}$ = $\partial_{xxx}$ = $\partial^{3}/\partial \ x^{3}$ or the third partial derivative with respect to $x$, $C_{s}$ is the phase speed of the mode, and $\beta$ is a constant affecting the rate of the dispersive loss. If $\lvert \beta \ \partial_{x}^{3} v \rvert > \lvert \left( C_{s} + v \right) \partial_{x} v \rvert$ here, then the dispersive losses can limit (or even prevent) the steepening of the wave.

Note that the Korteweg-de Vries-Burgers equation includes an extra loss term $\propto -\nu \ \partial_{x}^{2} v$, where $\nu$ is a kinematic viscosity.

Example Application

Here is an example of nonlinear wave steepening that I created using Mathematica. This was in response to a question I posted on the Mathematica Stack Exchange site here. The pulse is meant to represent a nonlinear magnetosonic wave using the method described by Shukla et al., [2004].

nonlinearly steepening magnetosonic wave example

You can see that the initial soliton-like solution starts to distort and the gradient scale length of the right-hand side decreases. Since Mathematica is too "smart" for its own good sometimes (at least for those who are not Mathematica whisperers), the code reaches a "stiff solution" before the wave breaks or shocks, depending on the how one treats the loss terms.


  • Coroniti, F.V. "Dissipation discontinuities in hydromagnetic shock waves," J. Plasma Phys. 4, 265, doi:10.1017/S0022377800004992, (1970).
  • Krasnoselskikh, V.V., B. Lembège, P. Savoini, and V.V. Lobzin "Nonstationarity of strong collisionless quasiperpendicular shocks: Theory and full particle numerical simulations," Phys. Plasmas 9, 1192-1209, doi:10.1063/1.1457465, (2002).
  • Shukla, P.K., B. Eliasson, M. Marklund, and R. Bingham "Nonlinear model for magnetosonic shocklets in plasmas," Phys. Plasmas 11(5), pp. 2311-2313, doi:10.1063/1.1690297, (2004).
  • Tidman, D.A., and T.G. Northrop "Emission of plasma waves by the Earth’s bow shock," J. Geophys. Res. 73, 1543–1553, doi:10.1029/JA073i005p01543, (1968).
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Hi thanks for the reply. Can you give a link for the reference you have mentioned? I'm not able to find it. – vijay Oct 9 '14 at 4:55
@vijay - Sorry, for some reason I put down the wrong year in that reference. Sagdeev did have some important work published in 1962 as well, but it was in Russian. I have the PDF file, but not a link. I wasn't sure if I could attach a PDF file of a paper as an image. – honeste_vivere Oct 9 '14 at 14:53
@vijay - You should also look up any papers/books written by G.B. Whitham. He has a book that goes into gory detail regarding dispersion, steepening, and just about every other topic on waves. – honeste_vivere Oct 9 '14 at 14:57
Hi, is it possible to email the pdf file to vijaysnitt[at]gmail[dot]com? – vijay Nov 14 '14 at 5:38
A comprehensive and exhaustive answer, +1. – Autolatry May 6 at 13:22

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