A wide range of initial-value problems in fluid mechanics in particular, and in the physical sciences in general, are described by nonlinear partial differential equations. Recourse must often be made to numerical solutions, but a powerful, well-established technique is to solve the problem in terms of similarity variables. A disadvantage of the similarity solution is that it is almost always independent of any specific initial conditions, with the solution to the full differential equation approaching the similarity solution for times
$t\gg t_{\ast }$
, for some
$t_{\ast }$
. But what is
$t_{\ast }$
? In this paper we consider the situation of viscous gravity currents and obtain useful formulae for the time of approach,
$\unicode[STIX]{x1D70F}(p)$
, for a number of different initial shapes, where
$p$
is the percentage disagreement between the radius of the current as determined by the full numerical solution of the governing partial differential equation and the similarity solution normalised by the similarity solution. We show that for any initial shape of volume
$V,\unicode[STIX]{x1D70F}\propto 1/(\unicode[STIX]{x1D6FD}V^{1/3}\unicode[STIX]{x1D6FE}_{0}^{8/3}p)$
(as
$p\downarrow 0$
), where
$\unicode[STIX]{x1D6FD}=g\unicode[STIX]{x0394}\unicode[STIX]{x1D70C}/(3\unicode[STIX]{x1D707})$
, with
$g$
representing the acceleration due to gravity,
$\unicode[STIX]{x0394}\unicode[STIX]{x1D70C}$
the density difference between the gravity current and the ambient,
$\unicode[STIX]{x1D707}$
the dynamic viscosity of the fluid that makes up the gravity current and
$\unicode[STIX]{x1D6FE}_{0}$
the initial aspect ratio. This framework can used in many other situations, including where it is not an initial condition (in time) that is studied but one valid for specified values at a special spatial coordinate.