A separated boundary-layer flow at the rear of a bump is considered. Two-dimensional equilibrium stationary states of the Navier–Stokes equations are determined using a nonlinear continuation procedure varying the bump height as well as the Reynolds number. A global instability analysis of the steady states is performed by computing two-dimensional temporal modes. The onset of instability is shown to be characterized by a family of modes with localized structures around the reattachment point becoming almost simultaneously unstable. The optimal perturbation analysis, by projecting the initial disturbance on the set of temporal eigenmodes, reveals that the non-normal modes are able to describe localized initial perturbations associated with the large transient energy growth. At larger time a global low-frequency oscillation is found, accompanied by a periodic regeneration of the flow perturbation inside the bubble, as the consequence of non-normal cancellation of modes. The initial condition provided by the optimal perturbation analysis is applied to Navier–Stokes time integration and is shown to trigger the nonlinear ‘flapping’ typical of separation bubbles. It is possible to follow the stationary equilibrium state on increasing the Reynolds number far beyond instability, ruling out for the present flow case the hypothesis of some authors that topological flow changes are responsible for the ‘flapping’.
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