Sea wave

"Ocean wave" redirects here. For the film, see Ocean Waves (film).

In fluid dynamics, wind waves or, more precisely, wind-generated waves are surface waves that occur on the free surface of oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, and canals or even on small puddles and ponds. They usually result from the wind blowing over a vast enough stretch of fluid surface. Waves in the oceans can travel thousands of miles before reaching land. Wind waves range in size from small ripples to huge waves over 30 m high.[1]

When directly generated and affected by local winds, a wind wave system is called a wind sea. After the wind ceases to blow, wind waves are called swells. More generally, a swell consists of wind-generated waves that are not—or are hardly—affected by the local wind at that time. They have been generated elsewhere or some time ago.[2] Wind waves in the ocean are called ocean surface waves.

Wind waves have a certain amount of randomness: subsequent waves differ in height, duration, and shape with limited predictability. They can be described as a stochastic process, in combination with the physics governing their generation, growth, propagation and decay—as well as governing the interdependence between flow quantities such as: the water surface movements, flow velocities and water pressure. The key statistics of wind waves (both seas and swells) in evolving sea states can be predicted with wind wave models.

Tsunamis are a specific type of wave not caused by wind but by geological effects. In deep water, tsunamis are not visible because they are small in height and very long in wavelength. They may grow to devastating proportions at the coast due to reduced water depth.

Wave formation

The great majority of large breakers one observes on a beach result from distant winds. Five factors influence the formation of wind waves:[3]

  • Wind speed
  • Distance of open water that the wind has blown over (called the fetch)
  • Width of area affected by fetch
  • Time duration the wind has blown over a given area
  • Water depth

All of these factors work together to determine the size of wind waves. The greater each of the variables, the larger the waves. Waves are characterized by:

Waves in a given area typically have a range of heights. For weather reporting and for scientific analysis of wind wave statistics, their characteristic height over a period of time is usually expressed as significant wave height. This figure represents an average height of the highest one-third of the waves in a given time period (usually chosen somewhere in the range from 20 minutes to twelve hours), or in a specific wave or storm system. The significant wave height is also the value a "trained observer" (e.g. from a ship's crew) would estimate from visual observation of a sea state. Given the variability of wave height, the largest individual waves are likely to be somewhat less than twice the reported significant wave height for a particular day or storm.[4]

Types of wind waves

Three different types of wind waves develop over time:

Ripples appear on smooth water when the wind blows, but will die quickly if the wind stops. The restoring force that allows them to propagate is surface tension. Seas are the larger-scale, often irregular motions that form under sustained winds. These waves tend to last much longer, even after the wind has died, and the restoring force that allows them to propagate is gravity. As waves propagate away from their area of origin, they naturally separate into groups of common direction and wavelength. The sets of waves formed in this way are known as swells.

Individual "rogue waves" (also called "freak waves", "monster waves", "killer waves", and "king waves") much higher than the other waves in the sea state can occur. In the case of the Draupner wave, its 25 m (82 ft) height was 2.2 times the significant wave height. Such waves are distinct from tides, caused by the Moon and Sun's gravitational pull, tsunamis that are caused by underwater earthquakes or landslides, and waves generated by underwater explosions or the fall of meteorites—all having far longer wavelengths than wind waves.

Yet, the largest ever recorded wind waves are common—not rogue—waves in extreme sea states. For example: 29.1 m (95 ft) high waves have been recorded on the RRS Discovery in a sea with 18.5 m (61 ft) significant wave height, so the highest wave is only 1.6 times the significant wave height.[6] The biggest recorded by a buoy (as of 2011) was 32.3 m (106 ft) high during the 2007 typhoon Krosa near Taiwan.[7]

Wave shoaling and refraction

As waves travel from deep to shallow water, their shape alters (wave height increases, speed decreases, and length decreases as wave orbits become asymmetrical). This process is called shoaling.

Wave refraction is the process by which wave crests realign themselves as a result of decreasing water depths. Varying depths along a wave crest cause the crest to travel at different phase speeds, with those parts of the wave in deeper water moving faster than those in shallow water. This process continues until the crests become (nearly) parallel to the depth contours. Rays—lines normal to wave crests between which a fixed amount of energy flux is contained—converge on local shallows and shoals. Therefore, the wave energy between rays is concentrated as they converge, with a resulting increase in wave height.

Because these effects are related to a spatial variation in the phase speed, and because the phase speed also changes with the ambient current – due to the Doppler shift – the same effects of refraction and altering wave height also occur due to current variations. In the case of meeting an adverse current the wave steepens, i.e. its wave height increases while the wave length decreases, similar to the shoaling when the water depth decreases.[8]

Wave breaking

Some waves undergo a phenomenon called "breaking". A breaking wave is one whose base can no longer support its top, causing it to collapse. A wave breaks when it runs into shallow water, or when two wave systems oppose and combine forces. When the slope, or steepness ratio, of a wave is too great, breaking is inevitable.

Individual waves in deep water break when the wave steepness—the ratio of the wave height H to the wavelength λ—exceeds about 0.17, so for H > 0.17 λ. In shallow water, with the water depth small compared to the wavelength, the individual waves break when their wave height H is larger than 0.8 times the water depth h, that is H > 0.8 h.[9] Waves can also break if the wind grows strong enough to blow the crest off the base of the wave.

Three main types of breaking waves are identified by surfers or surf lifesavers. Their varying characteristics make them more or less suitable for surfing, and present different dangers.

  • Spilling, or rolling: these are the safest waves on which to surf. They can be found in most areas with relatively flat shorelines. They are the most common type of shorebreak
  • Plunging, or dumping: these break suddenly and can "dump" swimmers—pushing them to the bottom with great force. These are the preferred waves for experienced surfers. Strong offshore winds and long wave periods can cause dumpers. They are often found where there is a sudden rise in the sea floor, such as a reef or sandbar.
  • Surging: these may never actually break as they approach the water's edge, as the water below them is very deep. They tend to form on steep shorelines. These waves can knock swimmers over and drag them back into deeper water.

Science of waves

Wind waves are mechanical waves that propagate along the interface between water and air; the restoring force is provided by gravity, and so they are often referred to as surface gravity waves. As the wind blows, pressure and friction forces perturb the equilibrium of the water surface. These forces transfer energy from the air to the water, forming waves. The initial formation of waves by the wind is described in the theory of Phillips from 1957, and the subsequent growth of the small waves has been modeled by Miles, also in 1957.[10][11]

In the case of monochromatic linear plane waves in deep water, particles near the surface move in circular paths, making wind waves a combination of longitudinal (back and forth) and transverse (up and down) wave motions. When waves propagate in shallow water, (where the depth is less than half the wavelength) the particle trajectories are compressed into ellipses.[13][14]

As the wave amplitude (height) increases, the particle paths no longer form closed orbits; rather, after the passage of each crest, particles are displaced slightly from their previous positions, a phenomenon known as Stokes drift.[15][16]

As the depth below the free surface increases, the radius of the circular motion decreases. At a depth equal to half the wavelength λ, the orbital movement has decayed to less than 5% of its value at the surface. The phase speed (also called the celerity) of a surface gravity wave is – for pure periodic wave motion of small-amplitude waves – well approximated by

c=\sqrt{\frac{g \lambda}{2\pi} \tanh \left(\frac{2\pi d}{\lambda}\right)}


c = phase speed;
λ = wavelength;
d = water depth;
g = acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface.

In deep water, where d \ge \frac{1}{2}\lambda, so \frac{2\pi d}{\lambda} \ge \pi and the hyperbolic tangent approaches 1, the speed c approximates


In SI units, with c_\text{deep} in m/s, c_\text{deep} \approx 1.25\sqrt\lambda, when \lambda is measured in metres. This expression tells us that waves of different wavelengths travel at different speeds. The fastest waves in a storm are the ones with the longest wavelength. As a result, after a storm, the first waves to arrive on the coast are the long-wavelength swells.

For intermediate and shallow water, the Boussinesq equations are applicable, combining frequency dispersion and nonlinear effects. And in very shallow water, the shallow water equations can be used.

If the wavelength is very long compared to the water depth, the phase speed (by taking the limit of c when the wavelength approaches infinity) can be approximated by

c_\text{shallow} = \lim_{\lambda\rightarrow\infty} c = \sqrt{gd}.

On the other hand, for very short wavelengths, surface tension plays an important role and the phase speed of these gravity-capillary waves can (in deep water) be approximated by

c_\text{gravity-capillary}=\sqrt{\frac{g \lambda}{2\pi} + \frac{2\pi S}{\rho\lambda}}


S = surface tension of the air-water interface;
\rho = density of the water.[17]

When several wave trains are present, as is always the case in nature, the waves form groups. In deep water the groups travel at a group velocity which is half of the phase speed.[18] Following a single wave in a group one can see the wave appearing at the back of the group, growing and finally disappearing at the front of the group.

As the water depth d decreases towards the coast, this will have an effect: wave height changes due to wave shoaling and refraction. As the wave height increases, the wave may become unstable when the crest of the wave moves faster than the trough. This causes surf, a breaking of the waves.

The movement of wind waves can be captured by wave energy devices. The energy density (per unit area) of regular sinusoidal waves depends on the water density \rho, gravity acceleration g and the wave height H (which, for regular waves, is equal to twice the amplitude, a):

E=\frac{1}{8}\rho g H^2=\frac{1}{2}\rho g a^2.

The velocity of propagation of this energy is the group velocity.

Wind wave models

Main article: Wind wave model

Surfers are very interested in the wave forecasts. There are many websites that provide predictions of the surf quality for the upcoming days and weeks. Wind wave models are driven by more general weather models that predict the winds and pressures over the oceans, seas and lakes.

Wind wave models are also an important part of examining the impact of shore protection and beach nourishment proposals. For many beach areas there is only patchy information about the wave climate, therefore estimating the effect of wind waves is important for managing littoral environments.

Seismic signals

Main article: microseism

Ocean water waves generate land seismic waves that propagate hundreds of kilometers into the land.[19] These seismic signals usually have the period of 6 ± 2 seconds. Such recordings were first reported and understood in about 1900.

There are two types of seismic "ocean waves". The primary waves are generated in shallow waters by direct water wave-land interaction and have the same period as the water waves (10 to 16 seconds). The more powerful secondary waves are generated by the superposition of ocean waves of equal period traveling in opposite directions, thus generating standing gravity waves – with an associated pressure oscillation at half the period, which is not diminishing with depth. The theory for microseism generation by standing waves was provided by Michael Longuet-Higgins in 1950, after in 1941 Pierre Bernard suggested this relation with standing waves on the basis of observations.[20][21]

See also




  • Reprinted in:


External links

  • "Anatomy of a Wave" Holben, Jay captured 5/23/06
  • NOAA National Weather Service
  • ESA press release on swell tracking with ASAR onboard ENVISAT
  • Introductory oceanography chapter 10 – Ocean Waves
  • HyperPhysics – Ocean Waves

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