Waves and water striders

…We now implement these ideas concerning wave and group speeds in a rather unusual context: the loves, life and times of water striders. Jearl Walker has written a fascinating and highly recommended account of the biomechanics and physics associated with these little creatures. Typically they live on the surface of water in a slowly moving stream, and can moves at speeds of up to a meter per second, especially if disturbed by intruders into their domain. They don't swim; they push against the surface of the water like a sprinter against starting blocks, which enables them to glide smoothly over the surface, generating waves as they go. They may also use waves to great advantage for detection of objects or potential mates! When the insect `kick-starts' its motion, it sets up a wave pattern or group associated with about five observable individual wave crests separated by about a millimeter; these are short wavelength capillary waves, surface tension being the dominant restoring force. As we have seen, for such waves the group speed υ_{g} exceeds the wave speed υ, so a crest in an expanding wave group will appear at the front and grow in amplitude as the group envelope overtakes it, finally diminishing in amplitude and ultimately disappearing as it exits from the rear of the group. We have earlier noted that the minimum speed of disturbance required to set up a set of travelling waves (as opposed to a transient group of waves initiated by the initial `kick') is 0.23 m/s. If the speed of the water glider relative to the water is less than this, no waves are generated. Travelling faster than 0.23 m/s, two sets of waves will be generated; the short capillary waves ahead of them and the longer gravity waves behind them, both in a downward parabolic-like shape with the vertex close to the insect's head. It is very similar to the pattern produced by a fishing line in a moving stream. However, these are not necessarily deep water waves, at least as far as the gravity waves are concerned; if so, the "angle" of the gravity wave pattern will depend on the speed of the glider, being narrower if the gliding speed is higher (assuming the speed exceeds the minimum of 0.23m/s). For gravity waves in shallow water, we will show below that the angle of the `wedge' is

ψ=2arcsin((√(gh))/(υ_{s}))

where h is the depth of the water and υ_{s} is the speed of the strider. If the water is deep in the sense already described, then there is no such easy or explicit formula as this for capillary waves, but the angle between the asymptotes of the parabolic crest shapes has the same qualitative behavior: the faster the strider, the narrow the angle. Another interesting feature of water striders, or any insects on the surface of water, is the shadows they cast. This is unrelated to waves, of course, having to do with optics. The shadows can be quite fascinating; they are often cartoon-like caricatures reminiscent of Disney or Far Side characters -- blobs representing eyes, torso, hands and feet joined by thin neck, arms and legs! A

stationary strider rests its weight on all six legs, each one creating a shallow depression on the water surface. If the water surface were completely flat, the shadow of the insect cast by the sun would be a pretty accurate representation of the size and shape of the strider (unless the sun is low, when some elongation would occur). However, the effect of the depressions in the surface is to refract the sunlight out and away from beneath the insect, thus increasing the size of the shadow areas associated with the its legs on the surface. The body, being raised above a flat region of the surface, casts a normal shadow, so the overall effect is an apparent enlargement of the extremeties! Hilaire Belloc has written a poem in "Cautionary Verses" about water beetles, and it is close enough in spirit to be `valid' for striders also; it is also quoted by Hildebrandt and Tromba: The WATER BEETLE here shall teach A sermon far beyond your reach: He flabbergasts the Human Race By gliding on the water's face With ease, celerity and grace; But if he ever stopped to think Of how he did it, he would sink. We now leave these little creatures to their own devices, and start to think about the bigger picture, so to speak. Ocean waves are frequently classified according to their periods, and their energy is distributed accordingly. The following list is provided by Bascom. Those waves with the shortest periods, less than one second, are ripples; `wind chop' has periods from one to four seconds; fully developed seas, five to twelve seconds; swell, six to twenty two seconds; surf beat from about one to three minutes; tsunamis from ten to twenty minutes; and tides with periods of twelve or twenty four hours. All except the ripples are gravity waves. Waves in deep water have a fairly uniform, undulating shape. Certain features of these waves are well established, at least observationally (but the theory is very complex and we will not pursue it here). If a wave is too steep, it breaks. Wave steepness is defined as the ratio of the height of the wave (from crest to trough) to its length: when this ratio exceeds about 1:7 the wave breaks, forming whitecaps. Another criterion used to study breaking waves is the angle at a wave crest: if this is rather less than about 120° then the wave breaks. This is qualitatively understandable if we imagine a wave moving up an increasingly shallow beach region; as the depth decreases the wave height increases, which in turn effectively shortens their length while steepening their sides. By now the crest is moving faster than the water below, and it falls forward and breaks, dissipating most of its energy at the shoreline. Many fascinating patterns can be observed at the shoreline as a result of this interaction between the waves and the shore.

In contrast to deep water waves, ocean waves moving into shallow water display a variety of shapes. Jearl Walker mentions four basic types: spilling, plunging, collapsing and surging. Without defining them precisely, it is sufficient for our purposes to recognize that they are consecutive phases in the life of a wave as it approaches the shore and is ultimately dissipated. A detailed account of many patterns associated with these phases can be found in Walker's article, and also the book by Bascom. Sand waves are particularly interesting; they can be found on the damp area of a beach left by the receding tide and also parts still being washed by waves. They can have wavelengths of several centimeters, and involve sand deposition by the surf as it interacts with the shore. Their shape depends on the speed of the surf; if they are large enough they can interfere significantly with the water flow, and modify it for the next upsurge (a type of feedback mechanism). Obviously sand erosion and deposition in sufficiently large quantities is of interest to engineers concerned with the changing topography of beaches, especially in heavily populated regions. Along many shorelines, strange cusps (the latin word for spear points) may be seen, set out with remarkable periodicity, particularly at high tide. They occur when the wind blows at an angle to the beach, and are symmetrically-placed, crescent-shaped depressions concave towards the sea. The beach is lowest at a cusp and highest in between. Each cell produces a circulating current pattern. Along the beach, the cusps are synchronized by an edge wave (see below) running along the beach in the breaker zone. This wave dips at each cusp and rises in between. Their diameters can range from less than a meter along the shore of a lake to 100 km or more for major shoreline features along an ocean. The latter are sometimes called giant cusps (not surprisingly) or shoreline rhythms. According to Bascom, their origin is still something of a puzzle, though some information on their generation and formation is available. The pattern appears to be maintained by the interaction of two waves that arrive consecutively on the shore, with the source of periodicity being the above-mentioned edge waves, created along the shoreline by waves coming in from deep water. These deep water waves are gradually refracted by the shallowing shoreline, and as they are subsequently reflected, part of their energy becomes trapped close to the shore and moves along the beach. What are edge waves then? Interestingly, like many other fluid dynamical phenomena, edge waves can be studied in the privacy of one's own home; indeed, the famous experimental physicist Michael Faraday did just this in 1831. A detailed account of his experiments and observations can be found in the article by Walker. The `home-grown' edge waves are manifested as spoke-like patterns arising when the surface of a liquid responds to external vibrations. A simple way to do this is with a wine glass; we are all familiar with the fact that such a glass may be made to "sing" by stroking the rim with a wet finger (many bored spouses at dinner parties have been known to perform this experiment quite absentmindedly, at least until a well-aimed kick under the table jolts them from their reverie). The physics behind the singing phenomenon is that the moistened finger tends to slip and stick periodically on the rim, and this produces vibrations in the glass, wherein opposite sides (say at 12 o'clock and 6 o'clock) expand and contract radially, while the sides at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock contract and expand out of phase respectively. This occurs when a wave is produced that has the same natural frequency of

oscillation as the wineglass; this phenomenon is called resonance, and it is relatively easy to produce in an empty wineglass. If the glass is nearly full, however, it is sometimes possible to generate and see edge waves, because the upper part of the glass vibrates more strongly than the base, naturally enough (however, a glass with wine in it, being more massive, has a lower resonant frequency than if the glass is empty). The pattern of edge waves is strong-weak-strong etc. around the glass, moving along with the finger. Apparently, this is an example of an instability in the surface of the wine (it works for water also!) induced by the oscillations of the glass. Normally this instability is "relieved", so to speak, by the generation and propagation of capillary waves, but the creation of a stationary pattern of edge waves is another way of doing this. This is an example of parametric resonance, and it generates edge waves with frequency exactly half that of the driving oscillation. For more information about parametric resonance and its characteristics, the papers by Walker and Lazara et al. should be consulted.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful