Transient amplification of a particular set of favorably configured forcing functions in the stochastically driven Navier–Stokes equations linearized about a mean shear flow is shown to produce high levels of variance concentrated in a distinct set of response functions. The dominant forcing functions are found as solutions of a Lyapunov equation and the response functions are found as the distinct solutions of a related Lyapunov equation. Neither the forcing nor the response functions can be identified with the normal modes of the linearized dynamical operator. High variance levels are sustained in these systems under stochastic forcing, largely by transfer of energy from the mean flow to the perturbation field, despite the exponential stability of all normal modes of the system. From the perspective of modal analysis the explanation for this amplification of variance can be traced to the non‐normality of the linearized dynamical operator. The great amplification of perturbation variance found for Couette and Poiseuille flow implies a mechanism for producing and sustaining high levels of variance in shear flows from relatively small intrinsic or extrinsic forcing disturbances.

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