We study propagation of short laser pulses through water and use a spectral hole filling technique to essentially perform a sensitive balanced comparison of absorption coefficients for pulses of different duration. This study is motivated by an alleged violation of the Bouguer–Lambert–Beer law at low light intensities, where the pulse propagation is expected to be linear, and by a possible observation of femtosecond optical precursors in water. We find that at low intensities, absorption of laser light is determined solely by its spectrum and does not directly depend on the pulse duration, in agreement with our earlier work and in contradiction to some work of others. However, as the laser fluence is increased, interaction of light with water becomes nonlinear, causing energy exchange among the pulse’s spectral components and resulting in peak-intensity dependent (and therefore pulse-duration dependent) transmission. For pulses at center wavelength, we determine the onset of nonlinear propagation effects to occur at a peak value of about of input laser energy fluence.
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