The instability of the three-dimensional high-shear layer associated with a near-wall low-speed streak is investigated experimentally. A single low-speed streak, not unlike the near-wall low-speed streaks in transitional and turbulent flows, is produced in a laminar boundary layer by using a small piece of screen set normal to the wall. In order to excite symmetric and anti-symmetric modes separately, well-controlled external disturbances are introduced into the laminar low-speed streak through small holes drilled behind the screen. The growth of the excited symmetric varicose mode is essentially governed by the Kelvin–Helmholtz instability of the in ectional velocity profiles across the streak in the normal-to-wall direction and it can occur when the streak width is larger than the shear-layer thickness. The spatial growth rate of the symmetric mode is very sensitive to the streak width and is rapidly reduced as the velocity defect decreases flowing to the momentum transfer by viscous stresses. By contrast, the anti-symmetric sinuous mode that causes the streak meandering is dominated by the wake-type instability of spanwise velocity distributions across the streak. As far as the linear instability is concerned, the growth rate of the anti-symmetric mode is not so strongly affected by the decrease in the streak width, and its exponential growth may continue further downstream than that of the symmetric mode. As for the mode competition, it is important to note that when the streak width is narrow and comparable with the shear-layer thickness, the low-speed streak becomes more unstable to the anti-symmetric modes than to the symmetric modes. It is clearly demonstrated that the growth of the symmetric mode leads to the formation of hairpin vortices with a pair of counter-rotating streamwise vortices, while the anti-symmetric mode evolves into a train of quasi-streamwise vortices with vorticity of alternate sign.
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