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Physical Processes

Physical Processes

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Marine geology
Marine geology

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Published by: Wanda Rozentryt on Sep 22, 2010
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Physical Processes

ediment transport and deposition in deep ocean and shallow coastal environments are functions of tide, wave and current patterns which interact to produce a dynamic environment of rapid change in coastal environments and the shallow continental shelf which have been shaped by tectonics and sea level. In this chapter, we will concentrate on the effect of physical forces on the sedimentary environments. Waves are our first subject. The formation and action of waves supplies most of the energy expended on the shoreline and over the continental shelf. Nearshore and shelf currents are discussed next, and finally tides which can be considered a form of wave.



oth the character and the frequency of wave action have profound impacts on coastal sediment dynamics. Waves distribute and sort sediment in direct relationship to the distribution and magnitude of wave forces. This leads to the development of terrigenous sediment accumulation patterns in which the coarsest sedimentary particles are in areas subject to the highest wave forces and fine-grained deposits reside in regions characterized by low energy waves. Along coastal areas exposed to open-ocean swell, sediment movement will occur to greater depths, owing to the longer period of these waves. For example, sediment transport remains active at depths of 30 meters along the exposed southern coast of Tahiti, where swell can exceed 2 meters in height and 10 seconds in period on a "typical" day. In other areas, seasonal swell patterns may take secondary importance to storm waves (i.e., the northeastern US). In tropical seas, the prevailing easterly approach of winds and waves leaves an important imprint on sediment transport and, therefore, coastal type. Because beaches are constructed and modified by wave processes, they are constantly changing at rates which are dependent on wave characteristics, tides and ultimately, on meteorological conditions which control wave formation. Satellite images have been used to summarize wave energy patterns for the world's coastlines with the incoming energy expressed in terms of wave height. As the waves shoal and are affected by bottom friction, they increase in height and steepness until they break . The turbulence and currents generated by wave action stir and suspend sediments resulting in sediment movement along the shoreline by wave related nearshore currents and tidal currents.


Sediment transport in a marine environment involves: • • entrainment of a particle (lifting into suspension) by wave action, and; displacement of that particle by wind, tide, or wave-generated currents.

Wave Generation and Theory

• • •

aves are formed by the frictional drag of wind across the water surface with a transfer of energy from wind to water. The water particles are moved from their position by the wind, and then returned to the original position by gravity which is a restoring force. These are called gravity waves. The result is a circular motion by the water particles. The energy is transported, but not the water through which the energy travels. The size of the waves resulting from the energy transfer is governed by velocity of the wind (W), fetch (F) or distance over which the wind blows, and duration (D) of time that the wind blows,

summarized as: H, T = function (W,F,D) Large waves (long period) can be generated only where the fetch is large. Waves continue to grow after they reach a velocity of one-third wind speed, but at a decreasing rate. Energy losses from friction, transfer of energy into currents, and the development of white caps means that waves will not grow until wave speed reaches wind speed. Waves are described by their • • • wave length (L) which is the horizontal distance between two crests wave height (H), the elevation of the crest above the trough, and wave period (T) which is the interval of time for two wave crests to pass the same position in space.

The rate of propagation of the wave form, or phase speed (C) is: Co = L/T. The energy of a group of waves travels with the wave group velocity, which for deep water waves is equal to one-half the wave phase velocity. 2

In the wave generating area, wind waves or sea consist of peaked waves of many different heights, lengths and periods. The waves are generally described in terms of wave spectra measured on a wave record. We use harmonic analysis or statistical procedures to develop data that tell us about the magnitude and distribution of wave parameters. Because high waves are more significant in effect and easier seen, a statistic called the significant wave height (H1/3), was developed which is based on averages of the heights and periods of the highest one-third of the waves measured over a stated interval of time (usually 20 minutes). The period is then defined as the average of the periods of the highest onethird of the waves. Other statistical measures are the average wave height, the root-mean-square wave height (Hrms), and the maximum wave (Hmax). All of these measures are related mathematically, and can be converted from one form to another. As waves move out of the area of generation and in the absence of local wind, waves become swell, which are long regular waves with periods from 5 to 30 seconds. Swell is noticeable in the absence of local winds. This condition is uncommon, generally the character of the sea surface varies with local winds, and the swell is incorporated into local wave spectra. Shape of the wave and wave speeds are governed by the displacement of water particles and are functions of two variables, wave length and water depth. In deep water, the waveform is a sine wave. As the wave shoals to where water depth is less than one-half the wavelength, the wave motion is affected by bottom friction and wave height increases and wavelength decreases to produce a steeper wave, which departs from a sine wave form toward a trochoidal shape. The reason for this friction is explained by the Airy wave theory. The equation for wave velocity given by the Airy theory is: C 2 =

gL h tanh 2π L 2π

Since the velocity varies with the value of the hyperbolic tangent, the equation can be simplified for "deep water" and "shallow water" conditions. When the water is deep in relation to wavelength (H/L >1/2), the wave is unaffected by the bottom and the speed is a function of only the wavelength. This is because the hyperbolic tangent (tanh) becomes 1 (for values of H/L > 1/2) and: C o =

gLo 2π

In very shallow water (H/L less than 0.05; tanh 2πh/L = 2πh/L ), wave speed is a function of only water depth and the equation becomes: C =


Four wave theories have been used to characterize the behavior of water waves, and each is specific to a range of wavelength versus water depth. Using these theories, we can calculate the energy delivered to the shoreline by waves, and with a wave refraction program analyze the distribution of this energy. 3

As a wave shoals, the speed, height, and wavelength change, but the period is constant. We can therefore measure the period at the shore and get a deep-water wave length (Lo) if we use the two equations for deepwater waves to derive a new
2 equation: C o =

We can use substitution to derive a relationship between wave period and wavelength in deep water: Lo= (gT2/2π). The shoaling transformations for Airy waves can be presented in a graphical format.

gL and Co = L/T 2π

As the waves move out of the area of generation and cross the deep ocean as swell, and then enter shallow water, the character of the wave spectra changes with a pattern of reduction of the range of wave lengths . The energy from sea and swell is released in the surf zone where waves become breakers. Shoaling water depths interfere with the particle movement at the base of the wave, slowing forward motion. As one wave is slowed, the following waveform which is still moving at an unaffected speed, tends to "catch up" with the wave being slowed. Wave height increases, and the crests become narrow and pointed, while the troughs become wide curves. The trough between waves is flattened, and the crest sharpened. When wave height is approximately equal to water depth, the wave breaks with a form of spilling, plunging, and surging breakers.


Wave Modification in Shoaling
n very shallow water, the sinusoidal characteristics of waves are lost and individual waves tend to retain their identity. There is a tendency for the waves to consist of isolated crests separated by relatively flat troughs. There are two fundamental differences from the Airy theory: • • the orbital velocity of the solitary wave decreases by one-half from surface to bottom, and the solitary wave crest gives a velocity only in the direction of travel of the wave. The trough is present between crests and gives an offshore motion.


The orbital motion of a water particle during the passage of a wave traverses a slightly open curve rather than the theoretical closed orbit. In shallow water, interaction with the bottom changes the path to an ellipse and then to a back and forth movement with more transport of water in a shoreward direction. This produces a gradual advance of the water mass with the passage of each wave, which is piled against the shore, leading to generation of currents. Waves are subject to reflection, refraction and diffraction in shallow water. Wave refraction is a change in the direction of travel of the wave with change in depth of water. This develops the final distribution of energies and the generation of longshore currents. At depths of water where the wave motion begins to be affected by the bottom, each part of the wave travels with a velocity that is partially dependent on the water depth. Therefore, the wave must change direction of approach and conform to the bathymetry as it shoals. As the wave crests tend to parallel the depth contours, the wave rays, which are construction lines in the direction of wave travel normal to the wave crests, change orientation . The effect of wave refraction is to distribute wave energy along the shoreline unevenly. The most obvious result of refraction along coasts is the bending of waves to converge on points, headlands, and submarine ridges and to diverge in embayments. Shorelines will align parallel to the crests of dominant waves. This adjustment of energy input and shoreline response is dependent on many parameters, the most important of which is the refraction of deepwater waves by variations in submarine topography. The shape and alignment of beaches is therefore dependent on bathymetry. The angle and variation in wave height at the shore results from differences in the degree of wave refraction. Shoreline geometry develops in such a way as to minimize these gradients by creating a more uniform spatial distribution of wave forces. A computer program can be used to calculate the effects of refraction, shoaling and frictional attenuation for any given set of wave conditions or bottom configuration. Input data to the program include bathymetry and periods, heights, and frequencies of waves. Since systematic accumulation of wave data in coastal regions is rare, estimates of wave statistics must be made from deep-water data. Bathymetry from hydrographic charts and more detailed bathymetric data collected specifically for the analysis are converted to a dense array of water depth values and input to the computer program as a grid of discrete depth values. The deep-water wave parameters and the bathymetry then serve as input to the wave refraction/power computer program. All of these parameters are calculated as wave refraction data for each wave type input to the program. 5

The amount of incident wave energy that is reflected from a coast increases with increasing slope of the bottom, and may approach the entire incident wave energy if reflection is from a vertical wall. Diffraction is the flow of energy along the wave crest in a direction at right angles to the direction of wave travel. It becomes a mechanism for energy transfer when there is a pronounced gradient in wave height along the crest of a wave, such as occurs in passing beyond the breakwaters of a harbor entrance.

lthough tides are not a factor in sediment transport over much of the marine environment, tides and tidal currents have a dominant role in sediment transport and deposition in some coastal environments. They are important in delta development and in creating patterns of sand ridge distribution on shelves where tidal currents are strong. The persistence of tidal currents can make them effective in sediment transport. Weaker currents combine with wave motion to move sediment at the water-bottom interface and in suspension. Davis classified the world's shorelines as either • • • microtidal (tidal range = 0-2m); mesotidal (tidal range = 2-4m) or macrotidal (tidal range greater than 4m). i.e. Bay of Fundy



Tidal ranges vary worldwide as shown in the distribution figure. Hayes summarized the sand body geometries unique to each tidal range. Using the coast of western Europe as an example, he proposed that sandy shorelines could be classified by tidal range. As tidal range increases, barrier islands get progressively shorter and tidal-inlet sand bodies become larger and are oriented perpendicular to shore.

Tide Theory


he theory of tides is presented in many Introductory Oceanography books and is of secondary interest in this presentation, so the following discussion will be brief.

The equilibrium theory does not give a complete picture of what creates tides, but it does provide adequate insight. The balance between gravitational and centrifugal forces maintains the solar system of sun, planets and moons. The moon orbits the earth and is held in position by a gravitational force, which seeks to pull the two together, and is balanced by a centrifugal force acting to pull the moon away from the earth. In turn, the earth-moon system is balanced in position in a sun orbit by the same forces. Since the gravitational force is proportional to the square of the distance between two bodies but the tide generating force is proportional to the cube of the distance, distance becomes a more effective variable in developing tides. This causes the moon to have a greater effect on tide generation than the sun. The moon's gravitational force is strongest on the side of the earth facing the moon and the centrifugal force is stronger on the opposite side of the earth, resulting in two bulges of water (high tides) on opposite sides of the earth from the moon. Low tides are midway between these positions. As the earth rotates, the position of the moon changes and the tide position follows the earth's rotation, but is modified by the sun's position. 7

In opposition with the sun-earth-moon in line, the tide-generating forces of the sun and moon are additive producing maximum tidal ranges (spring tide). With the sun and moon positions at a 90o angle to the earth, the tide-generating forces of the sun are working at right angles to the moon giving a minimum tidal range (neap tides). Actual tides are at odds with the theoretical because: • • • masses of land interrupt, restrict and reflect tidal movements; bottom friction reduces the speed at which the tide "wave" can move; ocean depths and continental masses create local "basins" that have their own responses to tidal forces.

If the bulges (wave crests for a tide) are separated by half the earth's circumference (20,000 km), they would move at a speed of 1600 km/hr for the predicted semidiurnal tide (two highs and two lows per lunar day). Since the tides are an extreme example of a shallow water wave, the actual speed over the sea is proportional to the square root of the water depth. In an ocean with an average depth of 3.9 km, the tidal bulges move at speeds slightly under 700 km/hr which is much less than required for two tidal bulges to transit the 20,000 km circumference of the earth in one day. The continents interrupt the free movement of the tidal bulges, and the separate ocean basins develop oscillatory waves whose character modifies the forced astronomical tidal waves.

Tide Classification
We have a variety of tide types that include diurnal (daily), semidiurnal (twice daily) and mixed tides. Diurnal tides of a single high and low water each lunar day are common in the Gulf of Mexico and along the coast of Southeast Asia. The semidiurnal tide of two high and two low waters each lunar day are common along the Atlantic coast of the United States. A mixed tide may have characteristics of both of the other tides. The diurnal inequality is a characteristic of this tide and successive high and low tides will have significantly different heights. They have a semidiurnal tidal period but for a few days of each tidal month will change to diurnal periods. This is the most common tide throughout the world, and it is common on the Pacific coast of the United States.




urrents have a strong influence on the transport and distribution of marine sediments. They may be generated by either tidal action or the shoaling of waves as they approach the shoreline.

Tidal Currents


t high tide, current velocity is zero because the water has reached its highest stage and is about to begin its outward flow. Following this high slack water, the lowering of the tide begins and the ebb tide current velocity increases and reaches a maximum about three hours after high slack. At low tide (low slack water), the velocity has decreased to zero and the flood tide onshore begins. Tidal currents have an important effect on the shelf sea floor and on coastal configuration. Tides and tidal currents on continental shelves are propagated as waves from the open oceans that are partially reflected back out to sea by the shoaling bottom. They are more pronounced in places where constrictions such as narrow entrances to large bays cause strong flows. 9

Tidal changes have short-term cyclic effects on beach sedimentary processes. Both the tidal range and the tidal currents generated vary widely and consequently, have an effect that can range from strong in shaping the beach to almost no effect on beach processes. The primary role of tides in beach processes is exposure and submergence of the beach face, and hence changes in how effective incoming waves may be in modifying the beach. The times of low tides will leave parts of the beach above wave action, and where tidal range is large, the time of exposure to marine transport processes is reduced. In areas of low tidal range, the continually submerged features are subject to more time of exposure to surf zone processes. Low tidal areas are therefore subject to more potential erosion. The areas of low tidal range are also subject to increased erosion during intervals of raised water levels associated with storm conditions and higher than normal tide periods because these reach areas beyond the beach face development.

Wave Associated Currents


n shallow water, the movement of the water particles becomes very complex in terms of onshore and offshore motions resulting in an excess of water carried to the shoreline. This excess is translated to a longshore movement and transshore circulation cells, which are sustained until the excess water moves seaward. Two systems of nearshore currents are: • • a cell circulation of rip currents, and longshore currents caused by waves breaking at an angle to the shoreline.

The two systems often may combine in a natural environment. The basic difference between them involves the driving forces. The cell circulation is caused principally by longshore variations in the water level within the nearshore zone produced by waves dumping water shoreward of a bar, or by wave setup. Cell circulation consists of rip currents and associated longshore currents. To replace water leaving the surf zone by way of the rips, there must also be a much slower mass transport. Waves moving toward the shore carry energy which is imprinted on the shoreline The most obvious cause of initial longshore variations in wave height is wave refraction; the waves being high where the wave rays and energy converge and low where the waves diverge. This water level rise leads to generation of cell circulation, for a longshore variation in wave height will give a corresponding longshore change in water level. Shoreward of the larger breaking waves, the water level will be highest and will cause the water to flow alongshore toward a position where the wave height is lower. The longshore currents converge toward positions of lowest wave breakers where the flow turns seaward as rip currents , which are narrow, high velocity flows of water directed away from the beach. When waves arrive at an angle to the shoreline, a longshore component to the wave generates longshore currents in the direction of the open angle between the wave front and the shoreline. The process of refraction is often incomplete, and waves can approach the beach at an angle, creating a component of movement of the excess water along the beach in a 10

longshore current. This drift of water continues until the excess water can move offshore. Komar and Holman, 1986 The net onshore transport of water by wave action in the breaker zone, the lateral transport inside the breaker zone by longshore currents, the seaward return of the flow through the surf zone by rip currents constitute a nearshore circulation system. Longshore currents are generally too low velocity to erode sand grains, but wave turbulence in the surf zone will throw grains in suspension and they will move alongshore with even low velocity currents.

Ocean Current Systems


ceanic currents can develop in coastal waters. The causes are similar to deepwater currents. Wind blowing parallel to the coast in a direction that would cause water to pile up along the shore under the influence of the Coriolis effects produces a situation in which that water must eventually, under the influence of gravity, run back down the slope toward the open ocean. As the water runs down the slope away from the shore, the Coriolis effect causes it to veer to the north on the west coast and to south on the east coast of continents of the northern hemisphere . In shallow water along the coast, the deflection is so slight that the water may flow essentially in the direction of the wind stress. The depth of windinduced currents depends on the velocity and constancy of the wind, and is generally negligible below 60 or 70 meters. The large permanent currents are generated by the density distribution of the oceans ( sea surface topography ), but are maintained by the prevailing winds . Fast flowing currents, like the Gulf Stream, develop counter-currents along the sides that have an important influence on the coastal configuration of the United States. These great streams of water have a surface slope to the left in the northern hemisphere and the water on the higher side is always warmer and hence lighter. The major gyrol currents turn to the right in the northern hemisphere. The westward movement at low latitudes is the result of trade winds and the easterly movement the result of west winds at higher latitudes. The most concentrated currents occur along the east side of the continents of Asia and North America because of the pile up of water due to the trade winds.


Storms as Geological Agents
air weather waves tend to be swells of low amplitude and long period. The asymmetry of the associated bottom wave surge is marked, with the landward stroke beneath the wave crest being significantly more intense than the seaward stroke beneath the trough . Differential velocity is sufficient to move sand upslope and onshore. This onshore migration is particularly large with long period waves when crests may be separated by eight seconds or more. There is time for sand grains to be deposited; once deposited on the bottom, the grains are harder to move than sand that is in suspension increasing the landward tendancy. During storm conditions, wave steepness increases and wave surge asymmetry is no longer efficient in driving sand landward. Storm waves tend to be shorter in period and higher with larger orbital velocities. More sand is thrown into suspension and the critical grainsize threshold between suspensive and tractive sand fractions is shifted to favor suspension. Suspension is more nearly continuous and the discharge through the littoral circulation cells is increased. Some sand is driven across the back beach and over the dunes in the form of a washover fan, but most is transported seaward through rip channels and in rip current plumes. The result is withdrawal of littoral sand from the fair weather storage. The combination of low pressure and greater wave height can have an effect although duration may be less than a day. With a return to normal conditions after a storm, the beach will begin a return to its normal configuration. During a severe storm , the seaward shift in breaker position and the intensification of seaward sand transport may destroy the bar and beach prism, with heavy transport through rip channels and rip current plumes. High waves of short period will keep sand in suspension and lead to beach erosion. The sand washed off the foreshore by backwash does not settle and is often carried into rip currents and transported seaward out of the system while creating a series of eroded channels.


Another important effect of change in wave energy is the shifting of sand along the beach as a result of a change in wave approach. The shore forms as closely as possible to right angles of the direction of wave approach. This is the most stable beach form because longshore drift is at a minimum under this condition. Therefore, a wide beach forms on the side of an 12

embayment away from the wave approach. If the wave approach changes to the opposite direction, the wide beach will tend to shift to the other end of the embayment.

Hurricanes and Tropical Storms


estward moving tropical waves are best known for the "low" part of the surface pressure cycle. Tropical lows generally exhibit variable weaker winds and increased cloudiness and precipitation. Wave conditions under a tropical low are usually calmer on the average, except near centers of strong precipitation, which are accompanied by strong winds (and large seas) of short duration. During the hurricane season in the Atlantic, from June to November, the high sea surface temperatures and favorable atmospheric conditions allow the development of these tropical lows into tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes. Hurricanes can develop 1520 meter waves near their center and swell is radiated asymmetrically along their trajectory. Coastal features may be modified by the high waves and damage to coastal structures can be severe Five hundred and fourteen hurricanes have been recorded the Tropical Atlantic during the past century, with the most common time of hurricane occurrence being AugustSeptember. These storms are very well organized systems of low pressure generated in high latitudes of the Atlantic Ocean. The swells from these events have the capability to generate significant wave power upon reaching the coastal areas. A cyclone that eventually reaches hurricane intensity first passes through two intermediate stages known as tropical depression and tropical storm.



sunamis are much less frequent than hurricanes, but the size and power of the wave forces is devastating. Faulting (earthquakes), massive submarine slope failure and volcanic activity can generate a tsunami that can propogate over an entire ocean basin.


These are essentially high speed tidal waves that are modified in deep water because of the extreme wave length. The high wave crest breaking and falling onshore can create major damage and modify sediment patterns.




he basic sedimentary environments are set by tectonic processes and sea level position. Within this framework, the physical forces supplied by waves, tides and coastal currents operate to determine the character of marine sedimentary deposits. Within many of the coastal environments that will be discussed, an interaction between wave and tide energies govern sediment transport and deposition. Although wave action is most easily recognized for having an effect on beaches, it plays a role in estuaries, barrier systems, deltas and offshore sediment movement. Wave refraction is an important process in focusing wave energy in coastal environments and in setting up sediment transport systems. Tides provide the dominant energy in many coastal environments and may have an influence in shaping shelf sediments where the energies are high.


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