In this paper we assume the existence of a nonlinear boundary layer centred on the critical point, and explore its effect on the development of unstable parallel shear flows. A velocity matching condition derived in a qualitative discussion suggests a growth of harmonics which differs from that predicted by previous theories; however, the prediction is in excellent agreement with experimental data. A hyperbolic-tangent velocity profile, subjected to perturbations with wavenumbers and frequencies close to marginal values, is then chosen as a mathematical model of the nonlinear development, both temporal and spatial instability growth being considered. A singularity in the analysis which has been treated in previous theories by the introduction of viscosity is dealt with in the present work by the introduction of a growth boundary layer. The asymptotics are non-uniform and the time-dependent solution does not resemble the steady viscous solutions, even as the growth rate tends to zero. The theory suggests that the instability will develop as a series of temporally growing spiral vortices, a description differing from that of a cat's-eye pattern predicted by existing theories, but in accord with experimental and field observations. © 1974, Cambridge University Press. All rights reserved.
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