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MAGIC course, spring 2010

Topological fluid mechanics

Andrew D. Gilbert and Mitchell Berger

Mathematics Research Institute, School of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, U.K.

1 Why topological fluid mechanics?

To the authors’ knowledge, the term was first coined for an IUTAM conference in Cambridge, U.K. in 1989, by Keith Moffatt and Arkady Tsinober [13]. The aim of the conference was to bring together scientists interested in fluid mechanics and the sister subject of magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) who were wrestling with problems of understanding the complexity of fluid flows and magnetic fields.

Overall the aim is to approach such problems from a general viewpoint that complements the more classical approaches. So for example a classical question would be to understand the instability of plane parallel flows, introducing problems involving eigenmodes and eigenfunctions for specific profiles, and some general results such as Rayleigh’s inflection point theorem.

On the other hand the type of question that topological fluid mechanics would aim to address is: what is the general structure of a steady inviscid fluid flow? Can stability be proven for whole classes of two- or three-dimensional flows in arbitrary shaped regions? Can we ‘construct’ flows with general streamline topology? If a magnetic field is tangled and knotted, how much energy may be realised if it is allowed to reconnect?

Such questions have relevance in understanding a whole range of phenomena, from the structure of turbulent flow, to superfluid flow (in which vortices form a tangle of lines), to the magnetic fields of the solar corona and generation of field deep in the Earth or Sun. In each case a range of methods of looking at general fields and their structure have proved useful and the aim of this course is to set out some of the theory and applications.

In a sense the term topological fluid mechanics is something of an umbrella

Preprint submitted to Elsevier

8 February 2010

term, and some of the methods and ideas could perhaps be better described as geometrical. Nonetheless it is a useful title to bring together a whole range of topics that take a general view of whole classes of fluid flows and magnetic fields and their properties. This includes many works with a distinctly pure mathematical flavour, and some areas of study rapidly move into studying general inviscid flows on manifolds of arbitrary dimension, or to quantifying how big groups of diffeomorphisms are. However our approach will be from the angle of applied mathematics, with a close eye on applications and not being concerned about technicalities.

We have benefitted from a range of sources of information, and in particular have made use of material in the unpublished lecture notes of Steve Childress [3] for the beginning of the course, with his permission.



The course will be given by Andrew Gilbert and Mitchell Berger and cover the following topics:

Part I (AG): basics, helicity and relaxation

Background and motivation, hydrodynamics and magnetohydrodynamics. Revision of Kelvin’s theorem and magnetic analogies.

Fluid, magnetic and cross helicity, geometrical interpretation.

Magnetic relaxation.

Part II (MB): knots, tangles, braids and applications

Link, twist and writhe of flux and vortex tubes.

Braiding of flux and vortex tubes.

Vortex tangles in quantum fluids and vortex tubes in turbulence, crossing numbers.

Chaotic mixing, stirrer protocols, pA maps and topological entropy.

Part III (AG): dynamics of point and line vortices

Point vortex dynamics, invariants, integrability.

Vortex tube dynamics, local induction approximation, invariants, solitons.

If time: introduction to Lagrangian fluid mechanics.

These Latex notes cover the part I, which is the first three lectures, and there are exercises and bibliography at the end. The notes are pretty informal and I have not cross referenced equations, preferring to repeat them where necessary. This is because these notes are a basis for the lectures I will give: the lectures will also have an informal style but be more bullet point orientated and include pictures and sketches. Finally there may be (will be!) errors and slips in the notes and lectures: please do not hesitate to bring these to my attention.



A few general notes

The summation convention is in force in these notes unless otherwise stated. We sum over repeated (dummy) indices in each product. Single (free) indices are not summed and label different equations.

We will refer to position with vector r or x and use either (x, y, z ) or (x 1 , x 2 , x 3 ) interchangeably. Note that r = |r|.

We may use components of a vector u as (u 1 , u 2 , u 3 ), especially in general theory, but also (u, v, w), particularly in examples.

We use the convenient abbreviation t for ∂/∂t and i for ∂/∂x i .

For a vector b we often write b 2 for b · b = |b| 2 .

We will often write something like u ·∇A. This can be thought of as (u ·∇)A where u · ∇ = u i i is an operator acting on the vector field A. Or, we can think of A as a matrix whose ijth component is i A j . In this case we are simply dotting u into the first index by taking u i i A j . In the latter case we consider A as defining a matrix and we define |∇A| 2 = (i A j )(i A j ), that is the sum of the squares of the entries of the matrix.

We assume a good knowledge of vector calculus identities: many are given below.


Vector calculus identities

Here is an incomplete list of useful identities:

(φψ) = φψ + ψφ

∇ · (φu) ∇ × (φu)

(u · v) u × (∇ × u) ∇ · (u × v) ∇ × (u × v) ∇ × (∇ × u) ∇ × ∇φ





1 2 u 2 u · ∇u v · ∇ × u u · ∇ × v u∇ · v v∇ · u + v · ∇u u · ∇v (∇ · u) − ∇ 2 u = 0




φ · u + φ∇ · u φ × u + φ∇ × u u · ∇v + v · ∇u + u × (∇ × v) + v × (∇ × u)

∇ · ∇ × u = 0

We also make much use of Gauss’ theorem (the divergence theorem)

V ∇ · u dV = S n · u dS

where V is a volume enclosed by a surface S with outward normal n. Or we


have it in a more general form

V i φ dV = S n i φ dS

where i φ = ∂φ/∂x i and n i is the ith component of the normal vector n. Here φ can be any quantity, so could have a set of indices itself.

We also occasionally use Stokes’ theorem

S n · ∇ × u dS = C u · dr

where S is a surface with boundary C and the direction of the normal n to

S is related to the direction of integration around C by the usual right-hand


5 Governing equations for fluid flow

We consider fluid flow u(r , t) with constant density, governed by the Navier– Stokes equation in the form

t u + u · ∇u = −∇p + ν2 u

∇ · u = 0

The latter condition, of a solenoidal or divergenceless vector field, is used a great deal below. The viscosity ν will always be a constant. We will often make use of the material derivative

D t =


Dt = t + u · ∇

for which the equation becomes

D t u = −∇p + ν2 u

The flows may be in infinite space, or in a bounded domain D with boundary

S in which case we apply a no-slip condition

u = 0

(r ∈ S)

We will usually focus on inviscid or ideal fluid flow, governed by the Euler equation, with zero viscosity (this is a highly singular limit!), namely,

t u + u · ∇u = −∇p


This can also be written in the attractive form

t u = u × ω − ∇P

where the Bernoulli function is

P = p +

1 2 u 2

and the vorticity is given by

ω = ∇ × u which is another solenoidal vector field

∇ · ω = 0

Note that by taking the divergence, the pressure is given by

2 P = ∇ · (u × ω)

Actually we have lapsed here: P is the Bernoulli function, but we often slip into calling the pressure. Whatever it is called, obtaining P is thus a non- local procedure: the flow and vorticity at all points in the domain affect all other points. In a numerical code, this Poisson equation has to be solved each time-step.

Taking the curl eliminates the pressure and gives the vorticity equation

t ω = ∇ × (u × ω)


D t ω = t ω + u · ∇ω = ω · ∇u This latter equation shows the ω is transported with the fluid flow (left-hand side) but also undergoes stretching and rotation (right-hand side). Technically it is Lie-dragged in the flow and for this reason vorticity (rather than velocity) plays a central role in discussion of topological fluid mechanics. In other words given a flow u, the above equation carries vectors ω as though they each join two infinitesimally close fluid particles. Here the Lie bracket of two vector fields is defined as

[u, v] = u · ∇v v · ∇u It is antisymmetric [u, v] = [u, v] and satisfies the Jacobi identity

[[u, v], w] + [[v, w], u] + [[w, u], v] = 0

For more information, see books on differential geometry, for example that of Schutz [16].

In the ideal case we also have boundary conditions: in a finite domain D we impose a no normal flow condition

n · u = 0


(r ∈ S)

where n is a normal vector to S pointing outwards from D. As setting ν = 0 reduces the order of the equation, we are forced to reduce the number of boundary conditions and can no longer require that the flow be no-slip at the boundary. Note that we will use D for the domain, the entire volume, in which we are working, and V if we are using a subvolume of this. We will use S for the surface of either D or V: which will be clear from the context.

Sometimes it is convenient to work in unbounded space D = R 3 , for which we typically assume that the vorticity field ω is localised, so falling off with r faster than any negative power of r so that for any n,

|ω(r, t)| = o(r n )

(r → ∞)

For working in infinite space we start with a finite sphere S R of radius R enclosing a volume V R . We then derive an exact result valid in V R and then allow R to tend to infinity. A condition such as that the vorticity field be localised will typically mean that the surface integral over S R vanishes as R → ∞, leaving us with a result valid over all space D = R 3 .

Sometimes it is instead convenient to work in periodic space, for example we set D to be the periodic cube T 3 defined as [0, 2π] 3 with periodic boundary conditions so that surface integrals sum to zero on opposite faces by periodicity (as the normal vector n changes sign, all other quantites remaining the same). One may have to take care defining potentials in this geometry, for example magnetic vector potential A below.

Note that in a finite domain D with the boundary condition u · n = 0, the divergence-free field u is orthogonal to any gradient in the sense that

D u · ∇φ dV = D ∇ · (φu) dV = S φu · n dS = 0

using Gauss’ theorem (the divergence theorem).

6 Cauchy solution

A particle or fluid element will be carried by a fluid flow. It will start at say

a at time t = 0 and at each moment it will have position x(t) and velocity u(x, t). Its position x(t) is then given at later times by the differential equation



= u(x(t), t)

and initial condition

x(0) = a

It is convenient often to use a label a to label the initial condition, so we

essentially follow the whole family of trajectories x(a, t) from all the initial


positions a and write

and initial condition




= u(x(a, t), t)

x(a, 0) = a

Thinking about fluid dynamics in terms of these Lagrangian coordinates a gives the Lagrangian picture of the flow, which has some advantages, though many disadvantages (in that the pressure transforms in a complicated way in Lagrangian coordinates). Within the Lagrangian picture one can solve for the

vorticity field if the velocity field is known. Of course the two are linked in

a complex way for ideal fluid flow! But life is a bit easier in the kinematic dynamo problem: see later.

What about an infinitesimal vector that joins x and x + δ x? We get the equation for this by linearising the above ODE to yield




= δx · ∇u(x(a, t), t)

We have Taylor expanded in δ x and dropped quadratic and higher order terms. This essentially defines an infinitesimal vector: it is always so short that we

can neglect these higher order terms (one can imagine rescaling it). This is the vector used for example for measuring Liapunov exponents (and technically

it is in the tangent bundle of the domain in question).

This is essentially the same equation as that for vorticity in the form

D t ω = ω · ∇u

confirming that vorticity vectors are carried like infinitesimal vectors in the flow.

We can also obtain a similar equation for the Jacobian : given x(a, t) we may set

J ij = x i

J (a, t) = x/∂a

∂a j Differentiating the equation for particle motion with respect to a gives





= (u) T J


J ij




k u i (x(a, t), t) J kj ,

J (a, 0) = I

(with I as the identity matrix). Here u is the matrix of derivatives of u, with

(u) ij = i u j

and T gives its matrix transpose.


This gives us solutions to transport of vectors and scalars in the flow. First consider a scalar field φ that is carried in the flow passively according to

D t φ

= t φ + u · ∇φ = 0

with initial conditon φ(a, 0) = φ 0 (a). The solution is given by

φ(x(a, t), t) = φ 0 (a)

as can be checked by differentiating with respect to time at constant a.

Similarly suppose the initial vorticity is given by ω(a, 0) = ω 0 (a) and the vorticity ω(x, t) obeys

D t ω = t ω + u · ∇ω = ω · ∇u

Then the solution to this, the Cauchy solution, is given by

ω(x(a, t), t) = J(a, t)ω 0 (a)


ω i (x(a, t), t) = J ij (a, t)ω 0j (a)

or, taking x = x(a, t) as read, we have

ω(x, t) = J(a, t)ω 0 (a)


ω i (x, t) = J ij (a, t)ω 0j (a)

This natural link between the motion of particles, infinitesimal vectors and Jacobians, and the equations governing vorticity and (later) magnetic fields is at the heart of the notion of Lie-dragging. It is also natural to think of vortex lines, that is integral curves of the vorticity field given by





= dx 2



= dx 2



at a fixed time t, being carried materially by the fluid flow. If we mark vectors on these lines, joining material points, then as the points move apart or rotate the vectors stretch or rotate accordingly.

Given that we can ‘solve’ the vorticity equation by means of the Cauchy solution it may seem attractive now to use this to solve the Euler equation. The problem though is that it is very hard to invert the vorticity solution to give the flow field (this being a non-local procedure) and it is only in very special cases that these Lagrangian methods can be used to solve fluid problems.

Note that for similar reasons there is no obvious means to transport flow vectors u in the fluid. Whereas the equations for vorticity permit a local cal- culation of the evolution of vectors, those for u involve the non-local pressure term, which requires a global calculation.



Transport of gradients or one-forms

There is another natural means of transporting ‘vectors’ in a flow. Suppose we differentiate the equation

D t φ = t φ + u · ∇φ = 0

for a passive scalar to obtain the equation for its gradient, say g = φ. This satisfies

D t g = t g + u · ∇g = (u) · g Here u is the matrix of derivatives of u, with

(u) ij = i u j

Thus gradients are transported differently from vorticity or magnetic field vectors. This is natural when you think how they are defined: they point in the direction of greatest increase of φ at a point: if there is stretching in that direction then the gradient is reduced! Technically we ought to distinguish vectors that are stretched like vorticity, obeying the Lie dragging equation

D t b = t b + u · ∇b = b · ∇u

and one-forms or covectors which obey a different Lie-dragging equation

D t g = t g + u · ∇g = (u) · g

Books on differential geometry (also modern books on relativity) make this important distinction. We do not want to get too sidelined by the manifolds and differential geometry, but it is useful to know that there are these two natural kinds of ‘vectors’, with different stretching properties in the flow. When the properties are important we will refer to one-forms as distinct from vectors, but we may be a little lax sometimes.

Furthermore if we take a scalar product we can check that

D t (b · g) = b · (u) · g b · (u) · g = 0

so the scalar product of a vector field and one-form field is a scalar field with

D t (b · g) = 0

If we consider 3 infinitesimal vectors transported in a fluid flow, b, c and d, then these demarcate an infinitesimal area element, whose volume is preserved as ∇ · u = 0. Thus we have

D t (b × c · d) = 0


Now, this is true for all choices of vector fields b, c and d and so it can be shown that b×c gives a one-form which may be thought of as an area element, say dS = n dS . We obtain the result that area elements are transported like gradients, according to

D t dS = (u) · dS

Again, thinking of how an area element is transported under stretching or shearing gives some intuition of what is going on, and why the transport equation is different from that for vectors. Wavevectors are also transported in the same way, in other words as one-forms. We can also write for infinitesimal vectors again and for infinitesimal volumes,

D t dr = dr · ∇u

D t dV = 0

Finally we have the Cauchy solution for vector fields, and something tells us that there should be something analogous for one-form fields. Suppose g is a one-form field and b is an arbitrary vector field, then from the Cauchy solution for a vector field, say


b(x, t) = J(a, t)b 0 (a)


b i (x, t) = J ij (a, t)b 0j (a)

and the fact that D t (b · g) = 0 gives



· g)(x,

t) = (b 0

· g 0 )(a)


(b i g i )(x, t)


(b 0i g 0i )(a)

one can check that


g(x, t)J(a, t) = g 0 (a)


g i (x, t)J ij (a, t) = g 0j (a)

Or, if we define the matrix K(a, t) to be the inverse of J (a, t),

JK = KJ = I


then one can check that

g(x, t) = g 0 (a, t)K(a, t)

J ij K jk = K ij J jk = δ ik


g i (x, t) = g 0j (a)K ji (a, t)

An alternative route is to obtain the equation for K as




= K(u) T


K ij



= K ik j u k (x(a, t), t),


K(a, 0) = I


Kelvin’s theorem

Kelvin’s theorem states that in ideal flow, the circulation of the fluid flow around any material curve C(t) is conserved in time.

Γ C = C(t) u · dr

By virtue of Stokes’ theorem this may be written as an integral over a surface S(t) that spans C(t), with an appropriate choice of outward normal

Γ C = S(t) ω · dS

The invariance of these follows easily from the discussion above. We know that since ω is a vector and dS is a one-form

and thus

D t (ω · dS) = 0

dΓ C


= S(t) D t (ω · dS) = 0

Note that we had to take a material derivative inside the integral. To appre- ciate this or visualise it, it is perhaps most natural to break up the surface S(t) into many infinitesimal surface elements dS and apply the infinitesimal version to each.

9 Energy and helicity invariants for fluid flow

We have conservation of (kinetic) energy

E K = D 2 u 2 dV


with the no normal flow boundary condition, and (kinetic) helicity

H K = D u · ω dV

with the boundary condition that

ω · n = 0

(r ∈ S)

This boundary condition states that vortex lines must be parallel to the bound- ary. In a sense this is an unnatural boundary condition, and it would not be preserved if viscosity were present. However in ideal fluid flow it is is preserved


if it is the case initially: to understand it we need to know more about the interpretation of the helicity integral.

To check the conservation of helicity, we take

dH K


= D [(t u) · ω + u · (t ω)] dV

= D [(u × ω − ∇P ) · ω + u · ∇ × (u × ω)] dV

= D u · ∇ × (u × ω) dV

with the ω · n = 0 condition used to remove the P · ω integral (recall the orthogonality property discussed earlier). We now use ω = ∇× u, the identity

∇ · (a × b) = b · ∇ × a a · ∇ × b

and apply Gauss’ theorem to give

dH K


= S (u × ω) × u · n dS

= S [u 2 ω (u · ω)u] · n dS = 0

This vanishes provided the natural boundary condition u·n = 0 holds and the condition that vortex lines do not penetrate the boundary, ω · n = 0. Under these conditions H K is constant, independent of time.

It is interesting to look at the evolution of H K (V) where now V(t) is a material volume, carried in the fluid flow. In this case we calculate as follows

dH K (V)


= V [(D t u) · ω + u · (D t ω)] dV

= V [−∇p · ω + u · (ω · ∇)u] dV

= V ∇ · (pω + 1 2 u 2 ω)


= S (p + 2 u 2 )ω · n dS = 0


provided that ω·n = 0 on the boundary S(t) of the volume V(t). Suppose that initially the volume V (0) is bounded by vortex lines, lying on the surface S (0). Then, as vortex lines are carried by the fluid flow the material surface S (t) will continue to be composed of vortex lines and so the boundary condition ω ·n = 0 will continue to hold. Thus for a material volume V (t) bounded by vortex lines H K (V ) is conserved. When we discuss the topological interpretation of H K this will become clear. Here we just note that there could be whole families of surfaces, for example nested tori, giving a continuous family of invariants, labelled by the surface.


It would be nice to illustrate this with some exact solutions for fluid flows satisfying the unsteady Euler equations, but such solutions are few and far between! Instead we will content ourselves with the steady Euler equations and a family of flows (a special case of the family of ABC flows we will meet soon),

u = A(0, sin x, cos x) + B(cos y, 0, sin y) There are two parameters A and B (though only the ratio is important as we can rescale u and time t) and the flows may be thought of as defined in a 2π periodic cube, i.e. a 3-torus T 3 . This flow has the Beltrami property that ω = ∇ × u u, vorticity and velocity are everywhere parallel, and so it is a solution of the steady Euler equation. The flow may also be written as

u = (y ψ, x ψ, ψ),

ψ = A cos x + B sin y

and so we see that in the (x, y)-plane the motion is along curves of constant ψ, while the vertical motion, that is in the z-direction, is constant on each curve of constant ψ. In full 3-dimensional space, helical streamlines lie on cylinders of constant ψ and these are also vorticity surfaces. The helicity inside each surface is constant, as it must be trivially for a steady flow! But in a more general context we have to imagine such a flow evolving with time and the helicity inside each surface of constant ψ would be conserved.

10 Ideal MHD and gauges

Before going on to study the topological interpretation of fluid helicity, we set up the analogous quantity of magnetic helicity. We consider the equations of magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), which in suitable units take the form of the Navier–Stokes equation

t u = u × ω + j × b − ∇P + ν2 u

with the addition of the Lorentz force j × b and the magnetic induction equa- tion

t b = ∇ × (u × b) η∇ × (∇ × b) Here we take the viscosity ν and the magnetic diffusivity η to be constants (otherwise the above forms need modifying). The limit η 0 is called the perfectly conducting limit as η 1 is proportional to the conductivity of the fluid, and so is large in plasmas and liquid metals.

The two fields are divergenceless

∇ · u = ∇ · b = 0

The first of these is an approximation (no fluid is entirely incompressible) while the second is a fundamental law of physics (no magnetic monopoles).


The electric current is given by

j = ∇ × b

Note that for divergenceless fields the two forms of the final term are equivalent as a result of the vector identity

∇ × (∇ × u) = (∇ · u) − ∇ 2 u

One can swap between these as needed.

There are a number of ways of rewriting the equations, for example as

D t u =

t u + u · ∇u = b · ∇b − ∇P M + ν2 u

D t b = t b + u · ∇b = b · ∇u + η2 b


P M = p + now includes the magnetic pressure.

In the ideal case we set ν = η = 0 and consider the perfectly conducting and no normal flow boundary conditions, namely

1 2 b 2

n · u = n · b = 0

(r ∈ S)

for a finite domain D with boundary S. This requirement gives no flow through the boundary and also no magnetic field lines penetrating the boundary. The latter is natural for theoretical discussion but not for many applications, for example the solar magnetic field which penetrates the photosphere, into the magnetosphere; see later.

Alternatively we may impose that the vorticity and magnetic fields fall off rapidly (faster than any power of radius) in an infinite domain, so that (at any time t) for any n,

|ω(r, t)|, |b(r, t)| = o(r n )

(r → ∞)

We now focus on the ideal case ν = η = 0.

t u


u × ω + j × b − ∇P

t b


∇ × (u × b)


D t u =

t u + u · ∇u = b · ∇b − ∇P M

D t b = t b + u · ∇b = b · ∇u


We note first that given ∇ · b = 0 initially, by taking the divergence of the induction equation it is preserved in time,

t ∇ · b = 0

This is ‘why’ there is no pressure needed in the magnetic induction equation. For u pressure is defined to constrain u to remain divergenceless.

Also, the induction equation is completely analogous to the vorticity equation, except that the magnetic field is not directly linked to the flow field u, whereas for vorticity ω = ∇ × u. Of course we did not use that link earlier in our discussion of Lie-dragging and so we still have the Cauchy solution for the magnetic induction equation

b(x, t) = J(a, t)b 0 (a)


b i (x, t) = J ij (a, t)b 0j (a)

In fact in kinematic dynamo theory we assume the field is so weak that the Lorentz force term may be neglected in the Navier–Stokes equation, and the flow field u may be specified independently of the magnetic field. In this case the Cauchy solution can be really useful if the flow is not too complicated.

We also have the analogue of Kelvin’s theorem, namely Alfv´en’s theorem that the flux Φ S of magnetic field through any material surface S(t) is conserved,

Φ S = S(t) b · dS

We have the usual conservation of energy with

E K + E M = D 2 u 2 dV + D 2 b 2 dV =




What of helicity? Just as ω = ∇ × u, plainly we need to obtain a field A with

b = ∇ × A

The existence of such a vector potential follows from ∇· b = 0, at least locally. This definition of A can be done globally in infinite space or in a bounded domain provided that it is simply connected. However there can be problems in defining A (as a single-valued function) if the domain D is multiply connected. For example if we work in three-dimensional periodic space D = T 3 we cannot uncurl a periodic b to obtain a periodic A unless it b has a zero average over D : no mean field. We will not get side-tracked by these considerations (another way in which topology intrudes into MHD) here, but they may reemerge later on.

Instead we focus on a different issue, that of gauge freedom : we can always add a gradient χ to A without affecting b:

A A + χ(r, t)


We uncurl the ideal induction equation in the form

t A = u × b + φ = u × (∇ × A) + φ

where the presence of φ corresponds to the freedom to choose the gauge:

whatever we put here will disappear when we take the curl to obtain the induction equation for b. There are a number of choices for φ: one is to make ∇ · A = 0, in which case we require this to hold for the initial condition for A and then evolve A with φ determined by

2 φ = −∇ · (u × b)

This is a non-local equation, rather like that for the pressure in the Euler equation.

11 Magnetic helicity

Given A with some choice of gauge we can define the magnetic helicity over

the domain D by

H M = D A · b dV

We then have

t H M = D [(u × b + φ) · b + A · ∇ × (u × b)] dV

Now the integral of (φ) · b vanishes as usual with n · b = 0 on the boundary and so the integral is reassuringly independent of the choice of gauge. Also u × b · b = 0, removing one term above, and with this we have

∇ · ((u × b) × A) = A · ∇ × (u × b)

from which after applying Gauss’ theorem

t H M = S n · (u × b) × A dS =

S n · [(u · A)b (b · A)u] dS = 0

by virtue of the boundary conditions: n · b = 0 so no field lines leave through the boundary, and n · u = 0 so there is no flow to transport helicity density b · A out of the domain.

For ideal MHD, the kinetic helicity H K is no longer conserved but a quantity called the cross-helicity is:

H X = D u · b dV

What of our magnetic ‘vector’ potential A: is it a vector or a one-form? As it stands it is neither, in the sense that it is generally not transported locally:


for example if one imposes the gauge ∇ · A = 0 then one has to solve a global, Poisson equation for the gauge φ. However we can write

t A = u × (∇ × A) + φ = u · ∇A + (A) · u + φ

With the choice φ = u · A we have

φ = (u) · A (A) · u

and so

D t A = t A + u · ∇A = (u) · A which is the equation for the Lie-dragging of a one-form. A is a one-form field with this particular choice of gauge and then we not only have conservation of the integral of helicity but also of its value, the helicity density h M = A · b advected in the fluid flow

D t h M = t h M + u · ∇h M = 0

Although this is attractive, having a materially conserved quantity, it does depend on following the field A in this gauge, and as it evolves it may become very fine-scaled. Typically people would rather follow the magnetic field b and then compute A in a suitable gauge such as ∇ · A = 0: in this case we can only use the integrated form H M of the helicity as a conserved quantity.

As in the case of kinetic helicity we can establish that H M is conserved if taken over a material volume V(t) contained in the domain D,

H M (V) = V(t) A · b dV

We can use the form

D t b = b · ∇u,

D t A = (u) · A + ψ

for an arbitrary gauge and obtain (with D t dV = 0)

dH M (V)


= V(t) [b · (D t A) + (D t b) · A] dV = V(t) b · ∇ψ dV = 0

using Gauss’ theorem with n · b = 0 on the boundary of V. As for vorticity, if the surface S volume is composed of magnetic field lines, then the helicity within is conserved.

Historical note: the conservation of magnetic helicity was noted by Woltjer in 1958: the attractive name of helicity was chosen because H M or H K change sign under reflection, being pseudo-scalars, by Moffatt in 1969.

For example consider the flow

u = (y, x, x 2 + y 2 )

ω = (0, 0, 2)


u · ω = 2(x 2 + y 2 )

and its mirror image under inversion r → −r

u = (y, x, x 2 y 2 )

ω = (0, 0, 2)

u · ω = 2(x 2 + y 2 )

12 Topological interpretation of helicity as linking number

We now consider the interpretation of helicity. We can work with either the fluid helicity

H K = D u · ω dV

or the

H M = D A · b dV

in the whole domain D where the flow or field is defined. We shall choose to work with the magnetic helicity.

Consider two thin linked tubes T j in D, of magnetic field as depicted, with centre lines C j for j = 1, 2. Here b = 0 outside each one, and each carries a

flux Φ j > 0: the direction of traversal along C j is in the direction of the field.

The flux is the integral Φ j = A j

magnetic helicity

b · dS

where A j is a surface spanning T j with normal in the direction of the field, i.e. a cross sectional area of the tube. We also assume that, individually, each tube is unknotted.

Focussing on the fact that b is non-zero only in the tubes, we have two con- tributions to the helicity integral, H M = H 1 + H 2 , where

H j = T j A · b dV

We can approximate these as integrals along the centrelines C j of the tubes, replacing b dV with Φ j dr, as

H j = Φ j C j A · dr

We may now use Stokes’ theorem: the integral of A around C j is the integral of the field b = ∇ × A through a surface S j spanning C j

H j = Φ j S j b · dS

and so is plus-or-minus the flux of the other tube, depending on orientation. For the picture shown and j = 1 we have a plus sign and so H 1 = Φ 1 Φ 2 . Likewise H 2 = Φ 1 Φ 2 and the total helicity is H M = 2Φ 1 Φ 2 . If the tubes are


not linked the value is zero, and if one set of arrows is reversed (or the whole system is reflected) then H M changes sign.

In general we have the result for a whole collection of tubes (each individually

unknotted) labelled by j that

H M =

i j

Φ i Φ j α ij

where α ij are integers that label the signed number of times that the centre line C j of the jth flux tube crosses the surface S i spanning the centre line C i

of the ith flux tube. Here the sign is +1 when the direction of C j agrees with

the outward normal of S i , obtained from a right-hand rule from the direction

of the centre line C i

Note that it is important that the flux tubes individually are not knotted (in knot theory these are called unknots ) and we set α ij = 0 for i = j. If a tube is knotted then we may break it up into a collection of unknotted tubes (see pictures) by inserting links and then compute the helicity this way. This defines the value of α ij for i = j in this more complicated case.


number of notes are in order. First, the topological nature of the invariant,


terms of the linkage of magnetic field lines or of vortex lines, explains why


is invariant under ideal, frozen field evolution: linkages cannot be broken if

magnetic field or vortex lines move materially with the fluid. It also explains why the condition that the field, or vortex, lines must satisfy ω · n = b · n = 0, either on the surface of the domain D for the total helicity, or on the surface of a moving material volume V (t). We cannot define linkage (easily) if the field or vortex lines do not close up. Note, though, that some important applications involve field lines that do intersect surfaces, for example in the solar corona, and ways of measuring linkage have been adapted to this: see later.

There is a connection between helicity and an invariant known as the Gauss linking number. Consider a magnetic field b in unbounded space that occupies tubes T j with centrelines C j and has fluxes Φ j . The corresponding A (in the gauge ∇ · A = 0) may be obtained at any time by a Biot–Savart integral (as can the velocity from the vorticity) namely,

A(r) =


4π D

(r r ) × b(r ) |r r | 3


If we replace b(r ) dV in the jth tube by Φ j dr then we obtain

A(r) =




4π C j

(r r ) × dr |r r | 3

We now plug this into

H =


Φ i C i

A · dr


from above to obtain

H =

i j

Φ i Φ j α ij


α ij =


4π C i C j

(r r ) · dr × dr

|r r | 3

This integral gives an integer, which is the Gauss linking number of curve i

with curve j for i

Note that if the linking number α ij between any two curves is non-zero then they are linked, and cannot be smoothly separated. However one can obtain configurations such as the Borromean rings, which are 3 linked rings: they cannot be pulled apart but have the property α 12 = α 23 = α 31 = 0.

Furthermore we have assumed there is no linkage associated with the field lines inside a given flux tube: this is not always correct and leads on to how one measures the twist of field in a tube (which may itself be in a complicated knot) and the related topic of writhe. This will be taken up later in the course.

A final issue here is that we have focussed on field that is concentrated in

discrete flux tubes (or vorticity in discrete vortex tubes). But what of field

in a continuous distribution, for example take the vorticity field ω = u for

members of the ABC family above. In this case very few field lines actually close. The work above has been generalised by Arnold to cover this case, and he refers to this as the asymptotic Hopf invariant. We will not reproduce the proof here, but the idea is to take magnetic field lines starting at points a and integrate trajectories x(a, t) along them for a time T , say. One then uses a set of paths to link the end points x(a, T ) to the initial points a:

these paths are to be short and straight. This then gives a collection of closed curves whose Gauss linking numbers may be computed and integrated. An appropriate limiting procedure taking T → ∞ yields the helicity or Arnold’s asymptotic Hopf invariant as the limit of the Gauss linking number, for a continuous magnetic field.

= j.

13 Beltrami flows and the ABC flows

We now return to fluid flows: our aim is to look at the structure of some steady Euler flows and how this is constrained.

Consider an ideal fluid in a finite region D with helicity H K = 0. What is the minimum value of the enstrophy

K = D ω 2 dV


for this given value of helicity? By the Cauchy–Schwartz inequality we have

H K = D u · ω dV 2 D u 2 dV D ω 2 dV = 2E K K


We also have a Poincar´e inequality that for a given finite region D there is a constant L such that

K = D ω 2 dV L 2 D u 2 dV = 2L 2 E K

for any u with n · u = 0 on the boundary. The number L 1 is the smallest value such that

ω = ∇ × u = L 1 u has a non-trivial solution in D subject to the no normal flow boundary con- dition u · n = 0.

From these two inequalities we have

H K 2E K K L 2




and so can write a lower bound for the enstrophy

K L 1 |H K |

in terms of the helicity. Plainly equality occurs when

ω = λu

everywhere in D, where λ = L 1 is a constant.

Such flows with the vorticity and velocity everywhere parallel are called Bel- trami flows and satisfy the steady Euler equation since u × ω = 0 identically. Here the flow and vorticity are proportional by a constant, namely λ.

The condition ∇ × u = λu gives an eigenvalue problem, and the least eigen- value gives L 1 . We have already met one such solution which is a special case of the ABC (or Arnold–Beltrami–Childress) family of flows, taking the form

u = A(0, sin x, cos x) + B(cos y, 0, sin y) + C(sin z, cos z, 0)

(in periodic space T 3 with no mean flow). If one of A, B or C is zero, we have a flow with regular streamsurfaces, seen earlier. In a certain plane there will be a repeated pattern of cat’s eyes. However if all three are non-zero, then typically we see a complex mixture of regular vortices, with stream surfaces that take the form of tori, interlaced with regions of chaos. To make life difficult the flow is highly three-dimensional. It has been studied by means of Poincar´e sections, in which a trajectory x(a, t) is follows and points plotted whenever this intersects one of a family of planes, for example a plane of constant x.


Amazingly, this is a steady Euler flow, and raises the question: just how compli- cated can steady Euler flows be? Are there any constraints on their structure? An answer to this question (and pretty much all that is known) is provided in a rigorous result of Arnold, which we set out informally as follows. We worm

in a finite domain D which could be a sphere, or could be periodic space T 3 .

A steady Euler flow obeys

u × ω = P

and so

u · ∇P = ω · ∇P = 0

Now, provided P does not vanish identically in a 3-dimensional region of space, there will exist a family of 2-dimensional surfaces S(P 0 ) on which P = P 0 is constant. The above result says that streamlines and vortex lines will be tangent to such surfaces. To understand what form the surfaces can take we need to be careful about points where P = 0. We assume there are only finitely many such points in the domain D under consideration. We then choose a value P = P 0 = constant, to give a surface S(P 0 ) which does not intersect any points with P = 0 (in other words we avoid the finite number

of exceptional values of P 0 where this occurs). We also assume the surface

does not intersect the boundary of D. The vorticity and velocity vectors are tangent to this surface S(P 0 ) and can vanish nowhere on it. It can be shown that the only such surface is topologically a torus, and that the velocity and vorticity fields wind around it. As we vary the value of P 0 we obtain nested tori S(P 0 ), provided we do not encounter a point where P = 0: at such a point surfaces may intersect.

Note that the reason the surfaces of constant P must be tori is linked to the non-vanishing of the flow field u (or ω) on the surfaces. For example the surfaces cannot be spheres as it is impossible to define a non-vanishing vector field: this is the famous result that one cannot comb a hairy ball, or that at any time the horizontal wind velocity must vanish at at least one location on the earth’s spherical surface. (For more information, in particular the link to the Euler characteristic of a surface, see the book of Arnold and Khesin [1].)

This analysis assumes that P varies in space and P = 0 at only finitely many points, so that nested two-dimensional surfaces P = P 0 = constant may be defined. But what if P is constant and so P = 0 over a whole 3-dimensional volume V , a subdomain of D? In such a case we must have that u × ω = 0 everywhere in V, so that

ω = αu for some function α(r): the flow must be Beltrami. But given that ∇ · u = ∇ · ω = 0, we can take the divergence of ω or u and rapidly show that

u · ∇α = ω · ∇α = 0

Now the argument repeats itself: if α(r) defines two-dimensional surfaces S(α) and with α = 0 assumed only at a finite number of points (which we avoid),


then the velocity and vorticity vectors must be tangent to the surfaces and non-vanishing. The surfaces are again tori.

The final possibility then is that α(r) is in fact a constant, say α(r) = λ, over a whole 3-dimensional region V and in this case we have

ω = λu

there, which is the eigenvalue problem giving us the ABC family of flows we had earlier in the particular case when V is all of periodic space. In other domains there will be other families of flows: for example there are analogues of ABC flows in spherical geometry.

In conclusion, flow lines and vorticity lines lie on nested tori except in the

special case of constant Bernoulli function P = p +

λ = constant. The ABC flows provide an example of this: for example the values A = B = C = 1 show a complex topology of fluid trajectories. These include invariant surfaces on which some stream lines sit, but interleaved with these are thin bands of chaotic trajectories. There is no mathematical reason why there should be any surfaces at all, and in fact the amount of chaos in the flow varies with the parameters. At another extreme, if C = 0 the flow shows a cat’s eye structure as mentioned before. Here there are two distinct families of tori on which streamlines (or vortex lines sit).

The reader may wonder why we cannot have regions where there are two- dimensional surfaces P = constant interleaved with three-dimensional regions in which P is identically constant. Or one could have a sequence of points where P = 0 that accumulate at some point in space. There are a lot of possibilities in three dimensions! In fact the theorem of Arnold excludes this by requiring that the field u be complex analytic: this means that critical points P = 0 (or α = 0) cannot accumulate, and that if P (or α) is constant in any three-dimensional volume then it is constant everywhere. Thus either there are P = P 0 surfaces with P = 0 at only finitely many points, or P is constant with P = 0 everywhere in D: there is no messy mixture allowed. In the latter case either α = α 0 surfaces exist with α = 0 at finitely many points, or α = 0 everywhere in D. The assumption of analyticity gives clear and clean alternatives at each point in the argument.

More general situations, in which the fields are only required to be infinitely differentiable, or arise from magnetic relaxation (see below) do not appear to have been studied, and are likely to be complicated.

2 1 u 2 and ω = λu with



Magnetic relaxation

Consider the following problem: we consider evolution of magnetic field with zero magnetic diffusion η = 0, under the full MHD equations including non- zero viscosity ν > 0. These are

t u = u × ω + j × b − ∇P + ν2 u

t b = ∇ × (u × b)

∇ · u = ∇ · b = 0,

j = ∇ × b

or equivalent. We work in a domain D which is finite with u = 0, n · b = 0 on the boundary S . We have kinetic and magnetic energies

E K = D 1 2 u 2 dV,

E M = D 2 b 2 dV


Then it may be shown that


dt (E K + E M ) = ν D |∇u| 2 dV

and so the total energy E = E K + E M 0 of the system decreases mono- tonically as t → ∞ and must tend to a limit, positive or zero. Recall that |∇u| 2 = (i u j )(i u j ) 0.

Can the limit be zero? Suppose we start with a given magnetic field b 0 and zero flow u = 0: then the Lorentz force j × b will tend to drive a flow (field lines are elastic and tend to contract, reducing magnetic energy). But the field lines are frozen in the flow and so any linkages and any helicity integrals (over the whole domain or over subvolumes) must be conserved: this constrains how small the magnetic energy may be. In fact we have from our discussion of Beltrami flows that

K = D ω 2 dV L 1 D u · ω dV = L 1 |H K |

where L is the constant appearing in the Poincar´e inequality. In magnetic terms this tells us that

2E M = D B 2 dV L 1 D A · b dV = L 1 |H M |

and so the helicity, if non-zero initially, gives a lower bound on the magnetic energy. (In fact a little care must be taken with the definition of L here as it involves boundary conditions on A