Spreading of turbulence as a result of nonlinear mode couplings and the associated spectral energy transfer is studied. A derivation of a simple two-field model is presented using the weak turbulence limit of the two-scale direct interaction approximation. This approach enables the approximate overall effect of nonlinear interactions to be written in the form of Fick's law and leads to a coupled reaction-diffusion system for turbulence intensity. For this purpose, various classes of triad interactions are examined, and the effects that do not lead to spreading are neglected. It is seen that, within this framework, large scale, radially extended eddies are the most effective structures in promoting spreading of turbulence. Thus, spectral evolution that tends toward such eddies facilitates spatial spreading. Self-consistent evolution of the background profile is also considered, and it is concluded that the profile is essentially slaved to the turbulence in this phase of rapid evolution, as opposed to the case of avalanches, where it is the turbulence intensity that would be slaved to the evolving profile. The characteristic quantity describing the evolving background profile is found to be the mean "potential vorticity" (PV). It is shown that the two-field model with self-consistent mean PV evolution can be reduced to a single Fisher-like turbulence intensity transport equation. In addition to the usual nonlinear diffusion term, this equation also contains a "pinch" of turbulence intensity. It is also noted that internal energy spreads faster than kinetic energy because of the respective spectral tendencies of these two quantities. © 2007 American Institute of Physics.