Turbulence is a flow regime characterized by low momentum diffusion, high momentum convection, and rapid variation of pressure and velocity in space and time. Flow that is not turbulent is called laminar flow. The (dimensionless) Reynolds number characterizes whether flow conditions lead to laminar or turbulent flow.


The flow of water over a simple smooth object, such as a sphere, provides an illustration. At very low speeds the flow is laminar; i.e., the flow is smooth (though it may involve vortices on a large scale). As the speed increases, at some point the transition is made to turbulent ("chaotic") flow. In turbulent flow, unsteady vortices appear on many scales and interact with each other. Drag due to boundary layer skin friction increases. The structure and location of boundary layer separation often changes, sometimes resulting in a reduction of overall drag. Because laminar-turbulent transition is governed by Reynolds number, the same transition occurs if the size of the object is gradually increased, or the viscosity of the fluid is decreased, or if the density of the fluid is increased.