.Oceanography: waves theory and principles of waves, how they work and what causes them by Dr J Floor Anthoni

2000 www.seafriends.org.nz/oceano/waves.htm

When the wind blows across the water, it changes the water's surface, first into ripples and then into waves. Once the surface becomes uneven, the wind has an ever increasing grip on it. Storms can make enormous waves, particularly if the wind, blows in the same direction for any length of time. In this chapter, you can learn what waves are and how they behave. Learn to understand the principles behind all surface waves.

waves and environment

Waves have a major influence on the marine environment and ultimately on the planet's climate.

wave motion

Waves travel effortlessly along the water's surface. This is made possible by small movements of the water molecules. This chapter looks at how the motion is brought about and how waves can change speed, frequency and depth.

waves and wind

The wind blows over the water, changing its surface into ripples and waves. As waves grow in height, the wind pushes them along faster and higher. Waves can become unexpectedly strong and destructive.

waves in shallow water

As waves enter shallow water, they become taller and slow down, eventually breaking on the shore.

wave groups

In the real world, waves are not of an idealised, harmonious shape but irregular. They are composed of several interfering waves of different frequency and speed.

wave reflection

Water waves bounce off denser objects such as sandy or rocky shores. Very long waves such as tsunamis bounce off the continental slope.

go to the oceanograpy index <==> go to special waves tsunamis, seiches, bores and internal waves . --home--oceanography index-- site map ---Rev 20000420,20000511,20010225,20010428,20060423,20070719,

Waves in the environment Without waves, the world would be a different place. Waves cannot exist by themselves for they are caused by winds. Winds in turn are caused by differences in temperature on the planet, mainly between the hot tropics and the cold poles but also due to temperature fluctuations of continents relative to the sea. Without waves, the winds would have only a very small grip on the water and would not be able to move it as much. The waves allow the wind to transfer its energy to the water's surface and to make it move. At the surface, waves promote the exchange of gases: carbon dioxide into the oceans and oxygen out. Currents and eddies mix the layers of water which would otherwise become stagnant and less conducive to life. Nutrients are thus circulated and re-used.

Without waves. Waves make beaches by transporting sand from deeper down towards the shore and by washing the sand and removing fine particles. witnessing a lake or sea flat like a mirror. should have noticed how effortlessly waves can propagate along the water's surface. down to depths of 30m or more. we are unfamiliar with how water particles can join forces . Thus waves maintain a gradient of biodiversity all the way from the surface.The large ocean currents transport warm water from the tropics to the poles and cold water the other way. because of warm ocean currents arriving from the north. For the creatures in the sea. They help to stabilise the planet's temperature and to minimise its extremes. the temperature of New Zealand is 3-4 degrees higher than it would be without them. Wave motion Anyone having watched water waves rippling outward from the point where a stone was thrown in. For instance. Yet. Waves pound rocks and make them erode faster. ocean currents allow their larvae to be dispersed and to be carried great distances. as familiar we are with waves. we see its surface stirred by waves. Indeed. is rather unusual. delay this process. but sea organisms covering these rocks. Coastal creatures living in shallow water experience the brunt of the waves directly. Wherever we see water. In order to survive there. they need to be robust and adaptable. Many creatures spawn only during storms when large waves can mix their gametes effectively. Waves stir and suspend the sand so that currents or gravity can transport it. there would not be as many species living in the sea.

which allows them to move freely and at high speed. behave very different and solely under the influence of gravity. In surface waves. which prevents them from moving freely. In all these media. the surface waves between two media (water and air). However. In air their returning force is the compression of the air molecules. which is much weaker than that of elastic compression. Hence the name 'gravity waves' for water waves. but the Pacific Ocean would stand about 50m higher. In solids. the molecules are tightly connected together. The tension in a string and the pressure of the air are such forces. except for compression of the water by virtue of its own weight. The oscillations that are passed to the air are different in that they travel in widening spheres outward. the method by which sound propagates.to make such waves. waves are propagated by compression of the medium. These travelling waves have a direction and speed in addition to their tone or timbre. or about 22cm higher in the absence of the atmosphere. For oscillations to exist and to propagate. like the vibrating of a guitar string or the standing waves in a flute. In gases. there must be a returning force that brings equilibrium. Since an . neither the string nor the flute could produce tones. the molecules are surrounded by vast expanses of vacuum space. the pull of the Earth. but they can vibrate. The specific volume of sea water changes by only about 4 thousands of 1 percent (4E-5) under a pressure change of one atmosphere (1 kg/cm2). the returning force is gravity. The standing waves in musical instruments bounce their energy back and forth inside the string or the flute's cavity. Without these. Water is a liquid and its molecules are allowed to move freely although they are placed closely together. Waves are oscillations in the water's surface. This may seem insignificant.

. surface waves can be sustained as high as 70% of the water's depth or some 3000m in a 4000m deep sea (Van Dorn. 1974) If each water particle makes small oscillations around its spot. and hence.atmosphere is about equal to a column of water 10m high. 1974). which reduces friction and loss of energy. undulate slowly. the height of waves is theoretically unlimited. Nevertheless it dominates the behaviour of small ripples (capillary waves).4E-8) of an atmosphere. the force of gravity is about 43 times weaker than that of elastic compression. waves can form if all water particles move at the same time and in directions that add up to the wave's shape and direction. Surface tension (which forms droplets) exerts a stress parallel to the surface. relative to its neighbours. Because water has a vast number of molecules. equivalent to only one 74 millionth (1. Its restoring force depends on the curvature of the surface and is still smaller. to the efficiency with which can generate larger waves and currents. In practice. (Van Dorn. requiring the water particles to make slow oscillations. Note that the water particles do not travel but only their collective energy does! Waves that travel far and fast. whose presence greatly contributes to the roughness (aerodynamic drag) of the sea surface.

they dissipate an average of 10kW (ten one-bar heaters) per metre of beach or the power of a small car at full throttle. Thus a 3m high wave has 3x3=9 times more energy than a 1m high wave. a wave's energy is proportional to the square of its height (potential). Thus long waves (ocean swell) extend much deeper down than short waves (chop). when placed deeper in the water. precisely half the wave's length. (Ref Douglas L Inman in Oceanography. By this difference.g. At a certain depth. . Attempts to harness the energy from waves have failed because they require large structures over large areas and these structures should be capable of surviving storm conditions with energies hundreds of times larger than they were designed to capture. 1974). This is the wave's base. When fine-weather waves of about 1m height pound on the beach. it would be moving along diminishing circles. Waves with 100 metres between crests are common and could just stir the bottom down to a depth of 50m. A floating object is observed to move in perfect circles when waves oscillate harmoniously sinus-like in deep water.).In the diagram some familiar terms are shown. Note also that the forward movement of the water under a crest in shallow water is faster than the backward movement under its trough. like a water particle. which is unrelated to the wave's length. Water waves can store or dissipate much energy. Long surface waves travel faster and further than short ones. the object would stand still. Note that the depth of a wave has little to do with its height! But a wave's height contains the wave's energy. If that object hovered in the water. sand is swept forward towards the beach. every five metres. e. Like other waves (alternating electric currents. the last frontier.

5 times faster than in air. 1. They can travel in water about 4.5. or mach-4. d= wave depth (or upper layer depth. a wave's celerity or speed would be about SQR(10 x 4000) = .000km) to New Zealand in about 12 hours.4m in Tauranga Harbour and 2.6m at various places along the coast. Sound waves propagate by compressing the medium. p2= density of water (=1) and p1= density of air (= 0. depending on temperature and salinity).00125). m).000 km. The 'tidal wave' caused by an under-sea earthquake in Chile in May 1960. They can travel only along the surface and their wave lengths can at most be about twice the average depth of the ocean (2 x 4 km). covered the 6000 nautical miles (11. Surface waves. travelling at a speed of about 900 km/hr! When it arrived. the curvature of the Earth bends the wave fronts to focus them again at a distance of about 12. The formula states that wave speed increases with wave depth and the relative difference in density. about 1500m per second (5400km/s. where they can still cause considerable damage. The fastest surface waves observed. it caused an oscillation in water level of 0. Note that tsunamis reach their minimum at about 6000 km distance.8066 m/s/s).p1) / p2 or c x c= g x d for water/air where c= wave speed. g= acceleration of gravity (9. The relationship between wave speed (phase velocity) and depth of long surface waves in shallow water is given by the formula c x c = g x d x (p2 . Such waves can travel in all directions and reach the bottom of the ocean (about 4km) in less than a second. are limited by the density of water and the pull of gravity. Beyond that. however.Waves have a direction and speed. For an ocean depth of 4000m. are those caused by tsunamis.4m in Whitianga harbour.

.1415. substitute in above equation: t x c = g x t x t / (2 x pi) c = g x t / (2 x pi) or t = c x 2 x pi / g or t = c x 0.56 m/s= t x 5. f= wave frequency.600 m. in media denser than water. l= wave length (m) and pi=3. For deep water.. .62 km/hr = t x 3.56 x t x t (metres) Thus waves with a period of 10 seconds. A tsunami travelling at 200 m/s has a wave period of 128 s. A 60 knot (110 km/hr) gale can produce in 24 hours waves with periods of 17 seconds and wave lengths of 450m.200 m/s = 720 km/hr. Such waves travel close to the wind's speed (97 km/hr). to calculate c and l from wave period t (in sec): c = t x 1. Surface waves could theoretically travel much faster on larger planets. the relationship between speed and wavelength is given by the formula: l = g x t x t / (2 x pi) l = t x c for all kinds of waves. and a wave length of 25.641 (s) where t= wave period (sec). travel at 56 km/hr with a wave length of about 156m.0 knot l = 1.

(Adapted from Van Dorn. From the red line in the right diagram. for periodic. A 12 second swell in deep water travels at about 20m/s or 72 km/hr. When the 12s swell enters 10m shallow water (follow the green curve for 10m). its speed will halve to 10m/s (left graph) and so will its wave length (right graph). But the height of the wave increases by a similar factor (not shown here). we can see that such swell has a wave length between crests of about 250m. 1974) Note that the term phase velocity is more precise than wave speed. and wave length and period (right). the red line gives the linear relationship between wave speed and wave period. . The period of waves is easy to measure using a stopwatch. progressive surface waves.These two diagrams show the relationships between wave speed and period for various depths (left). whereas wave length and speed are not. In the left picture.

these ripples do not travel exactly in the direction of the wind but as two sets of parallel ripples. these double wave fronts travel at about 30º from the wind. The wind becomes turbulent just above the surface and starts transferring energy to the waves. whereas synchronising movements are enhanced. These waves influence the motion of the water particles such that opposing movements gradually cancel out. As the water moves. The ripples. giving the wind a better grip.23 m/s. the wind has practically no grip. At wind speeds of 4-6 knots (7-11 km/hr). Further away from the shore. Ironically. the easier it is for the wind to transfer its energy. it makes it move. The waves start to become more rounded and harmonious. The ripples make the water's surface rough. the water's surface is not only stirred by the wind but also by waves arriving with the wind. The waves become steep and choppy. it forms eddies and small ripples. Depending on duration and distance (fetch). The surface still looks glassy overall but as the wind speed increases. Strong winds are more turbulent and make waves more easily. grow to wavelets and start to travel in the direction of the wind. starting at a minimum wave speed of 0. . at angles 70-80º to the wind direction. the wavelets become high enough to interact with the air flow and the surface starts to look rough. The rougher the water becomes. On a perfectly calm sea. the waves develop into a fully developed sea.Waves and wind How wind causes water to form waves is easy to understand although many intricate details still lack a satisfactory theory. As it slides over the water surface film.

one can take the average wave height at 50% probability as reference. In the left part of the drawing is shown how the value E is derived entirely mathematically from the shape of the wave. harmonious shape. knows that waves never assume a uniform. The sea state E is two times the average of the sum of the squared amplitudes of all wave samples. When trying to be more precise about waves. difficulties arise: how do we measure waves objectively? When is a wave a wave and should be counted? Scientists do this by introducing a value E which is derived from the energy component of the compound wave. The right part of the diagram illustrates the probability of waves exceeding a certain height. .Anyone familiar with the sea. The wave height is now proportional to the square root of E. The vertical axis gives height relative to the square root of the average energy state of the sea: h / SQR( E ) . the resulting water movement is made up of various waves. For understanding the graph. each with a different speed and height. Even when the wind has blown strictly from one direction only. Although some waves are small. Instruments can also measure it precisely and objectively. most waves have a certain height and sometimes a wave occurs which is much higher.

The energy in the red bell is 16 times larger! . In the picture the wave spectra of three different fully developed seas are shown. with that of the green bell. produced by winds of half that speed. the wave spectrum grows rapidly while also expanding to the low frequencies (to the right). the wind is no longer able to transfer energy to them and the sea state has reached its maximum. Note how the bell curve rapidly cuts off for long wave periods.Fifty percent of all waves exceed the average wave height. Click here for a larger version of this diagram. Because the waves travel at speeds close to that of the wind. Towards the left. the waves it creates. the probability curve keeps rising off the scale: one in 5000 waves is three times higher and so on. hence the saying "Every seventh wave is highest". The highest one-tenth of all waves are twice as high as the average wave height (and four times more powerful). produced by 40 knot winds. When the wind blows sufficiently long from the same direction. Compare the size of the red bell. The significant wave height H3 is twice the most probable height and occurs about 15% or once in seven waves. reach maximum size. The bell curve for a 20 knot wind (green) is flat and low and has many high frequency components (wave periods 1-10 seconds). speed and period beyond a certain distance (fetch) from the shore. This is called a fully developed sea. and an equal number are smaller. As the wind speed increases. to the right.

wave heights exceeding 5m are also normal. This property makes storms so unexpectedly destructive. The lowest waves occur where wind speeds are lowest. The biggest waves on the planet are found where strong winds consistently blow in a constant direction. with the occasional waves twice that height! Directly south of New Zealand. around the equator. . in these places. particularly where the wind's fetch is limited by islands. causing the birth of tropical cyclones. The amplitude of the waves increases to the third power of wind speed. Such a place is found south of the Indian Ocean. typhoons or hurricanes. the sea water warms up. at latitudes of -40º to -60º.Important to remember is that the energy of the sea (maximum sea condition) increases very rapidly with wind speed. as shown by the yellow and red colours on this satellite map. proportional to its fourth power. Waves here average 7m. However. which may send large waves in all directions. indicated by the pink colour on this map. particularly in the direction they are travelling.

on 2 June. but break in shallows relating to their height! How high a wave will rise.3 times their height.Waves entering shallow water As waves enter shallow water. grow taller and change shape. the waves slow down and their overall wave length shortens. Although their period (frequency) stays the same. with a period of 21 seconds. New Zealand. As they enter shallow water. The 'bumps' gradually steepen and finally break in the surf when depth becomes less than 1. . Such swell could have arisen from a 60 knot storm. Cooks Islands. Although their period remain the same. rose to 16m height off Manihiki Atoll. Note that waves change shape in depths depending on their wave length. The photo shows waves entering shallow water at Piha. It has been observed that a swell of 6-7m height in open sea. depends on its wave length (period) and the beach slope. At a depth of half its wave length. Notice how the wave crests rise from an almost invisible swell in the far distance. the rounded waves start to rise and their crests become shorter while their troughs lengthen. they slow down. they also change shape and are no longer sinus-like. 1967.

we can see that all particles make a circular movement in the same direction. Going back to the 'wave motion and depth' diagram showing how water particles move. Since shallow long waves have short crests and long troughs. As the diagram shows. and gradually break in a 'peeling' motion. forward on its crest. the sand's forward movement is much more brisk than its backward movement. They move up on the wave's leading edge. they can ride them almost all the way back to the beach. They favour this spot because as the waves bend around the rocks. potentially capable of guiding gravity waves. the particles close to the bottom will be restricted in their up and downward movements and move along the bottom instead.their distance between crests and their speed. down on its trailing slope and backward on its trough. resulting in sand being dragged towards the shore. This is important for sandy beaches. The forward/backward movement over the sand creates ripples and disturbs it. neither . diminish. Note that a sandy bottom is just another medium. In shallow water.8 times denser than water and contains about 30-40% liquid. It is about 1. Yet. Not quite visible on this scale are the many surfies in the water near the centre of the picture. the particle's amplitude of movement does not decrease with depth.

Surging breakers: occur where the beach slope exceeds wave steepness. This may help explain why sand is so easily stirred up by waves and why burrowing organisms are washed up so readily. transport this water away from the beach during groups of low waves. Swim parallel to the beach towards where the waves are highest. Rips running back to sea. Surf breakers are classified in three types: Spilling breakers: result from waves of low steepness (long period swell) over gentle slopes. when launching (rescue) boats. particularly for divers. In order to exit safely. this is best done in a rip zone. This strong backwash precludes easy exit from the breaker zone. So waves cannot propagate over the sand's surface. others toward low tide. like they do along the water's surface.does it behave like a liquid. do not attempt to swim back to shore because such rips can be very strong (up to 8 km/hr). This is where water moves towards the beach. A plunging breaker is dangerous for swimmers because its intensity is greatly augmented by backwash from its predecessor. wait for a group of low waves. Some beaches are steep toward high tide. The slope of a beach is not constant but may change with the tide. However. Such breakers gradually transport water towards the beach during groups of high waves. They cause rows of breakers. nor entirely like a solid. rolling towards the beach. The wave does not really curl and break but runs up against the shore while producing foam and large surges of y y y . It resists downward and sideways movements but upward movements not as much. The next group of tall waves should assist you to swim back to shore. but divers can observe the sand 'jumping up' on the leading edge of a wave crest passing overhead (when the water particles move upward). Often a steep bank of loose sand prevents one from standing upright. Plunging breakers: result from steeper waves over moderate slopes. When caught swimming in a rip.

their energy is absorbed and converted to heat. The gentler the slope of the beach. the more energy is converted. Photos Van Dorn. .. Steep slopes such as rocky shores do not break waves as much but reflect them back to sea. only one row of breakers. which 'shelters' marine life. Spilling breakers are a familiar Plunging breakers can occur on Surging breakers surge over steeply sloping (but not vertical) beaches or rocks. They arise steeply sloping beaches.water. There are several rows of breakers. Such places are dangerous for swimmers because the rapidly moving water can drag swimmers over the rocks. Waves break one at a time. 1974 sight on most beaches. There is from long waves breaking on gently sloping beaches. When waves break.

with a period of 14s would travel at a group velocity of 11m/s (not 22 m/s) and take about 24 hours (not 12 hr) to reach the shore from a cyclone 1000 km distant. Anyone having observed waves arriving at a beach will have noticed that they are loosely grouped in . having generally different amplitudes as well as periods. does not move at the speed of the waves but at the group speed. 1985) Most wave systems at sea are comprised of not just two. (Harris. but has the effect of making the groups (and the waves within them) more irregular. and would arrive a day later. This does not alter the group concept. they arrive at a time that corresponds with the group speed. It explains why waves often occur in groups. When distant storms send long waves out over great distances. The wave's energy spectrum. A group of waves with half the period (7s) would take twice as long. Thus a group of waves. Such a wave group moves at half the average speed of its component waves. not the wave speed.Wave groups Part of the irregularity of waves can be explained by treating them as formed by interference between two or more wave trains of different periods. discussed earlier. producing a wave group of larger amplitude (thick line). The diagram shows how two wave trains (dots and thin line) interfere. moving in the same direction. but many component wave trains.

Wave reflection Like sound waves. such spreading cancels out and the parallel wave fronts are seen travelling in the same direction. causing steep and hazardous seas. waves are slowed down and bent towards the shore. such as inside a harbour or behind an island. In the lee of islands. surface waves can be bent (refracted) or bounced back (reflected) by solid objects. Adapted from Van Dorn. creating a 'confused sea' of interfering waves with twice the height and steepness. Where a lee shore exists. waves can be seen to bend towards where no waves are.periods of high waves. Waves do not propagate in a strict line but tend to spread outward while becoming smaller. alternated by periods of low waves. waves can create an area where they interfere. 1974. waves are bounced back. When approaching a gently sloping shore. When approaching a steep rocky shore. Where a wave front is large. Such places may become hazardous to shipping in otherwise acceptable sea conditions. .

When seeking shelter. This drawing shows how waves are bent around an island which should be at least 2-3 wave lengths wide in order to offer some shelter. resulting in unpredictable and dangerous seas. .When wave fronts approach a gently sloping beach on an angle. causing them to bend towards the beach. If the beach slopes gently enough. It causes immediately in the lee of the island (A) a wave shadow zone but further out to sea a confusing sea (B) of interfering but weakened waves which at some point (C) focuses the almost full wave energy from two directions. they slow down in the shallows. When a beach is steep. Sometimes part of the energy is absorbed and the remaining energy reflected. the wave fronts get bent and then reflected back. all breakers will eventually line up parallel to the beach.

bores and internal waves . Drawings from Van Dorn. 1974. seiches. . It may suddenly accelerate coastal erosion in localised places along the coast. Recent research has shown that underwater sand banks can act as wave lenses. go to the oceanograpy index <==> go to special waves tsunamis. refracting the waves and focussing them some distance farther.avoid navigating through this area.