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It has previously been shown that the transient flow in a channel following a step increase of Reynolds number from 2800 to 7400 (based on channel half-height and bulk velocity) is effectively a laminar–turbulent bypass transition even though the initial flow is turbulent (He & Seddighi, J. Fluid Mech., vol. 715, 2013, pp. 60–102). In this paper, it is shown that the transient flow structures exhibit strong contrasting characteristics in large and small flow perturbation scenarios. When the increase of Reynolds number is large, the flow is characterized by strong elongated streaks during the initial period, followed by the occurrence and spreading of isolated turbulent spots, as shown before. By contrast, the flow appears to evolve progressively and the turbulence regeneration process remains largely unchanged during the flow transient when the Reynolds number ratio is low, and streaks do not appear to play a significant role. Despite the major apparent differences in flow structures, the transient flow under all conditions considered is unambiguously characterized by laminar–turbulent transition, which exhibits itself clearly in various flow statistics. During the pre-transition period, the time-developing boundary layers in all the cases show a strong similarity to each other and follow closely the Stokes solution for a transient laminar boundary layer. The streamwise fluctuating velocity also shows good similarity in the various cases, irrespective of the appearance of elongated streaks or not, and the maximum energy growth exhibits a linear rate similar to that in a spatially developing boundary layer. The onset of transition is clearly definable in all cases using the minimum friction factor, and the critical time thus defined is strongly correlated with the free-stream turbulence in a power-law form.
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