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Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text

Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

Chapter 9

A wind-blown wave breaking as it nears the shore.

The Waves
Chapter Outline
9.1 How a Wave Begins 9.10 Internal Waves
9.2 Anatomy of a Wave 9.11 Standing Waves
9.3 Wave Motion 9.12 Practical Considerations: Energy from Waves
9.4 Wave Speed Summary
9.5 Deep-Water Waves Key Terms
9.6 Wave Height Study Questions
9.7 Shallow-Water Waves
Study Problems
9.8 The Surf Zone
9.9 Tsunami
Field Notes: Modeling the December 26, 2004, Sumatra
226 Sverdrup−Armbrust: An
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s
10. The Waves Text © The McGraw−Hill
Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

Learning Outcomes
After studying the information in this chapter students should 5. characterize deep- and shallow-water waves,
be able to: 6. calculate the speed of deep- and shallow-water waves given
wave period, wavelength, wave frequency, and water depth,
1. describe the process of wave formation, including wave
7. review the factors controlling maximum potential wave
generating and restoring forces,
2. label the basic characteristics of a wave, including wave
8. diagram the processes of wave refraction, diffraction, and
crest, trough, height, and wavelength,
3. define wavelength, wave period, wave frequency, and wave
9. discuss the formation of tsunamis and report the history and
characteristics of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and
4. diagram wave-induced water motion as a function of depth
10. explain the formation and properties of internal and stand-
for both deep- and shallow-water waves,
ing waves.

W e have all seen water waves. This up-and-down mo-

tion occurs on the surface of oceans, seas, lakes, and
ponds, and we speak of waves, ripples, swells, break-
ers, whitecaps, and surf. Sometimes the waves are related to the
wind, or to a passing ship, or even to a stone thrown into the wa-
In the case of the thrown stone, the stone strikes the surface
of the water and displaces, or pushes aside, the water. As the
stone sinks, the displaced water flows from all sides into the
space left behind, and as this water rushes back, the water at
the center is forced upward. The elevated water falls back, caus-
ter. Waves may swamp a small boat or, when large, smash and ing a depression of the surface that is refilled, starting another
twist the bow of a supertanker. The storm waves of winter crash cycle. This process sets up a series of waves, or oscillations, at
against our coasts, eating away the shore and damaging struc- the air-sea boundary that move outward and away from the point
tures, such as docks and breakwaters. Heavy wave action may of disturbance until they are dissipated through friction
force commercial vessels to slow their speed and lengthen their among the water molecules.
sailing time between ports, to the inconvenience and increased In this example, the wave-generating force is the stone as it
cost of the shippers. Special waves associated with seismic dis- strikes the surface of the water. The force that causes the water
turbances have killed thousands of coastal inhabitants and se- to return to its undisturbed surface level is the restoring force.
verely damaged their cities and towns. Surfers search for the If the stone thrown into the water is small, the waves are small,
perfect wave, and ancient peoples navigated by the patterns that and the restoring force is the surface tension of the w ater
waves form. surface. (Surface tension is the elastic quality of the surface due
In this chapter, we describe different kinds of waves, inves- to the cohesive behavior of the water molecules.) Very small
tigate their origin and behavior, and study their major charac- water waves are affected by surface tension.
teristics. Our study is somewhat superficial and simplified, When the landslide is the generating force, much larger
because waves are among the most complex of the ocean’s phe- waves are pulled back to the undisturbed surface level of the wa-
nomena and because no two waves are exactly the same. Books ter by the restoring force of gravity. When waves are of suffi-
are written about waves; mathematical models have been de- ciently large size so that the restoring force of Earth’s gravity
vised to explain waves; wave tanks are built to study waves. is more important than surface tension, the waves are called
However, there is much we can learn if we follow the sequence gravity waves.
of events beginning at sea where a wave is born and ending at The most common generating force for water waves is the
last in the spray and surf of a faraway shore. moving air, or wind. As the wind blows across a water surface,
the friction, or drag, between the air and the water tends to
stretch the surface, resulting in wrinkles; surface tension acts on
9.1 How a Wave Begins these wrinkles to restore a smooth surface. The wind and the
Imagine that you are standing on the beach looking out across surface tension create small waves, called ripples, or capillary
a perfectly smooth surface of water. The production or gener- waves (fig. 9 .1). Patches of these very small waves are seen
ation of waves requires a disturbing force. You throw a stone forming, moving, and disappearing as they are driven by pulses
into the water or a large, naturally occurring landslide comes of wind. These patches darken the surface of the water and
down into the water. A pulse of energy is introduced, and waves move quickly, keeping pace with the gusts of wind; sailors call
are produced; this disturbing force is called a generating force. these fast-moving patches cat’s-paws. These waves die out ra-
The waves produced by the generating force move away from pidly while new ripples form constantly in front of each mov-
the point of disturbance. Of course, the magnitude of the distur- ing wind gust.
bance and the resulting wave size are very different in these two When the wind blows, energy is transferred to the water
examples. over large areas, for varying lengths of time, and at different
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

rates. As waves form, the surface be-

comes rougher, and it is easier for the wind
to grip the roughened water surface and
add energy. As wind speeds increase or
winds blow for longer times over the
water, the waves become larger, and the
restoring force changes from surface
tension to gravity (fig. 9.2).

9.2 Anatomy
of a Wave
In any discussion of waves, certain
terms are used; refer to figure 9.3 for
help in understanding these terms. The
part of the wave that is elevated the high-
est above the undisturbed sea surface is
called the crest; the part that is depressed
the lowest below the surface is called the
trough. The distance between two succes-
Figure 9.1 Short wavelength capillary waves in front of ordinary gravity waves on a beach. sive crests or two successive troughs is
The gravity waves are the larger waves and are propagating “down” toward a region of shallow the length of the wave, or its wavelength.
water. The capillary waves are the very short waves propagating in front of the larger waves. The wave height is the vertical distance
(Photo taken by Fabrice Neyret.)
from the top of the crest to the bottom of
the trough. Sometimes the term ampli-
tude is used. The amplitude is equal to one-half the wave height,
or the distance from either the crest or the trough to the undis-
turbed water level, or equilibrium surface. The oceanographer
characterizes a wave not only by its length and height (or am-
plitude) but also by its period. The period is the time required
for two successive crests or troughs to pass a point in space. If
you are standing on a piling and start a stopwatch as the crest of
a wave passes and then stop the stopwatch as the crest of the next
wave passes, the measured time is the period of the wave.
The dimensions and characteristics of waves vary greatly,
but the regularity in the rise and fall of the water surface and the
relationship between wavelength and wave period allow
mathematical approximations to be made, which give us insight
into the behavior and properties of waves. These calculations are
done by relating real waves to simple model waves. Figure 9.3a
has been drawn to show that real waves tend to have a trough
Figure 9.2 Wind-generated gravity waves at sea.
that is flatter than the crest; by contrast, figure 9 .3b is that of
a symmetrical sine wave. This regular wave, which only approx-
imates a water wave in nature, is one of the wave forms used by
physical oceanographers and mathemati-
cians to explore and explain wave motion.
The relationships presented in sections
9 .3 through 9 .7 are based on this regular
sine-wave form.

9.3 Wave Motion

As a wave form moves across the water sur-
face, particles of water are set in motion.
Figure 9.3 The profile of an ideal sea surface wave (a) differs from the shape of a Seaward, beyond the surf and breaker
sine wave (b). zone, where the surface undulates quietly,
228 Sverdrup−Armbrust: An
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s
10. The Waves Text © The McGraw−Hill
Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

the water is not moving toward the shore. Such an ocean wave particles of actual sea waves move in orbits whose forward speed
does not represent a flow of water but instead represents a flow at the top of the orbit is slightly greater than the reverse speed
of motion or energy from its origin to its eventual dissipation at at the bottom of the orbit. Therefore, each orbit made by a wa-
sea or against the land. To understand what is happening during ter particle does move the water slightly forward in the direction
the passing of a wave, let us follow the motion of the water par- the waves travel. This movement is due to the shape of the real
ticles as the wave moves through the water. waves, whose crests are sharper than their troughs; again see fig-
As the wave crest approaches, the surface water particles ure 9 .3a. This difference means that a very slow transport of
rise and move forward. Immediately under the crest the particles water in the direction of the waves occurs in nature, but this mo-
have stopped rising and are moving forward at the speed of the tion is ignored in calculations based on simple wave models.
crest. When the crest passes, the particles begin to fall and to
slow in their forward motion, reaching a maximum falling speed
and a zero forward speed when the midpoint between crest and 9.4 Wave Speed
trough passes. As the trough advances, the particles slow their A wave’s speed across the sea surface is related to its wavelength
falling rate and start to move backward, until at the bottom of and wave period. The speed of any surface wave (C) is equal to
the trough they have attained their maximum backward speed the length of the wave (L) divided by the period (T):
and neither rise nor fall. As the remainder of the trough passes,
length of wave
the water particles begin to slow their backward speed and start speed 
to rise again, until the midpoint between trough and crest passes. wave period
At this point, the water particles start their forward motion again or
and continue to rise with the advancing crest. This motion (ris- L
ing, moving forward, falling, reversing direction, and rising C
again) creates a circular path, or orbit, for the water particles as
the wave passes. Follow this motion in figure 9.4. Once a wave is created, the speed at which the wave moves may
It is the orbital motion of the water particles that causes a change, but its period remains the same (period is determined
floating object to bob, or move up and down, forward and back- by generating force).
ward, as the waves pass. This motion affects a fishing boat, In wave studies, C stands for celerity, a term traditionally
swimmer, seagull, or any other floating object on the surface used to identify wave speed and to distinguish wave speed from
seaward of the surf zone. The surface water particles trace an or- the group speed of waves. Group speed is usually identified by
bit with a diameter equal to the height of the wave. This same V (see section 9.5).
type of motion is transferred to the water particles below the sur-
face, but less energy of motion is found at each succeeding
depth. The diameter of the orbits becomes smaller and smaller
9.5 Deep-Water Waves
as depth increases. At a depth equal to one-half the wavelength, “Deep water” has a precise meaning for the oceanographer
the orbital motion has decreased to almost zero; notice how the studying waves. To be a deep-water wave, the wave must oc-
orbit decreases in diameter in figure 9.4. Submarines dive dur- cur in water that is deeper than one-half the wave’s length. Un-
ing rough weather for a quiet ride because the wave motion does der this condition, the water particle orbits of the wave do not
not extend far below the surface. reach the sea floor. For example, a wave 15 m (50 ft) long must
The orbits just described are based on the sine wave (see occur in water that is deeper than 7.5 m (26 ft) to be considered
fig. 9 .3b), not on real sea waves (see fig. 9 .3a). The water a deep-water wave and to behave as the waves described next.
The wavelength (L) of deep-water
waves is derived from the wave period (T),
and, because wavelength (L) is a function of
wave period (T), wave speed (C) is also de-
rived from wave period (T). The oceanog-
rapher at sea determines the wave period (T)
by direct measurement and calculates the
wavelength (L) from its relationship with
gravity and wave period. In deep water, the
wavelength is equal to the Earth’s acceler-
ation due to gravity (g) divided by 2 times
the square of the wave period (T). The value
of Earth’s gravity, g, is 9.81 m/s2.
Figure 9.4 The moving wave sets the water particles in motion. Red arrows indicate the g 2
direction a water particle at the surface moves as the wave propagates to the right (in the direction L T or L  1.56 m/s2T 2
of wave propagation at the crest and in the opposite direction at the trough). The diameter of a
water particle’s orbit at the surface is determined by wave height. Below the surface, the diameter This deep-water wave equation, when
decreases and orbital motion ceases at a depth (D) equal to one-half the wavelength. combined with the general wave speed
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

equation C  L/T, is used to determine wave speed (C) from short wavelengths. The faster, longer waves gradually move
either wavelength (L) only or wave period (T) only: through and ahead of the shorter, slower waves; this process is
called sorting, or dispersion. Groups of these faster waves
L g L2 g
C  T or C2   L move as wave trains, or packets of similar waves with approx-
T 2 T 2 2 imately the same period and speed. Because of dispersion, the
C  1.56T or C 2  1.56L distribution of observed waves from any single storm changes
with time. Near the storm center, the waves are not yet sorted,
See appendix C for a more complete wave equation and the while farther away, the faster, longer-period waves are out ahead
method used to determine the equations for deep-water wave- of the slower, shorter-period waves. This process is shown in
length and celerity. figure 9.5.
Away from the storm, the faster, longer-period waves ap-
pear as a regular pattern of crests and troughs moving across the
Storm Centers sea surface. These uniform, free waves are called swell;
Most waves observed at sea are progressive wind waves. They they carry considerable energy, which they lose very slowly
are generated by the wind, are restored by gravity, and progress (fig. 9.6). The distribution of the waves from a given storm and
in a particular direction. These waves are formed in local storm the energy associated with particular wave periods change pre-
centers or by the steady winds of the trade and westerly wind dictably with time, allowing the oceanographer to follow wave
belts. In an active storm area covering thousands of square kilo- trains from a single storm over long distances. Groups of large,
meters, the winds are not steady but vary in strength and direc- long-period waves created by storms between 40°S and 50°S in
tion. Storm-area winds flow in a circular pattern about the the Pacific Ocean have been traced across the entire length of
low-pressure storm center, creating waves that move outward that ocean, until they die on the shores and beaches of Alaska.
and away from the storm in all directions.
When a storm center moves across the sea
surface in a direction following the waves,
wave heights are increased because the
winds supply energy for a longer time and
over a longer distance. You may gain some
idea of the size of storms and their direction
of travel by viewing the cloud patterns in
the satellite photographs that are pre-
sented in televised weather forecasts.
In a storm area, the sea surface appears
as a jumble and confusion of waves of all Figure 9.5 Dispersion. The longer waves travel faster than the shorter waves. Waves are
shown here moving in only one direction.
heights, lengths, and periods; there are no
regular patterns. Capillary waves ride the
backs of small gravity waves, which in turn are super-
imposed on still higher and longer gravity waves. This
turmoil of mixed waves is called a “sea,” and sailors use
the expression “There is a sea building” to refer to the
growth of these waves under storm conditions. When
waves are being generated, they are forced to increase
in size and speed by the continuing input of energy; these
are known as forced waves. Because of variations in the
winds of the storm area, energy at different intensities is
transferred to the sea surface at different pulse rates, re-
sulting in waves with a variety of periods and heights.
Remember, wave periods are a function of the generat-
ing force; the speed at which a wave moves away from
a storm may change, but its period remains the same.

When the waves move away from the storm, they are no
longer wind-driven forced waves but become free
waves moving at speeds due to their periods and wave-
lengths. Waves with long periods and long wavelengths Figure 9.6 Waves of uniform wavelength and period, known as swell,
have a greater speed than waves with short periods and approaching the coast at the entrance to Grays Harbor, Washington.
230 Sverdrup−Armbrust: An
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s
10. The Waves Text © The McGraw−Hill
Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

Group Speed Wave I

Consider again the waves formed by a stone thrown into the wa-
ter. The wave group, or train, is seen as a ring of waves moving Wave II
outward from the point of disturbance. Careful observation
shows that waves constantly form on the inside of the ring as it
moves across the water. As each new wave joins the train on the
inside of the ring, a wave is lost from the leading edge, or out-
side, of the ring, and the number of waves remains the same. The
outside wave’s energy is lost in advancing the wave form into
undisturbed water. Therefore, the speed of each individual wave
(a) Waves in phase
(C) in the group is greater than the speed of the leading edge of
the wave train, and the wave ring moves outward at a speed one- Wave II
half that of the individual waves. This speed is known as the
group speed, the speed at which wave energy is transported
Wave I
away from its source under deep-water conditions:
group speed  1⁄2 wave speed  speed of energy transport
(b) Waves out of phase
Wave Interaction
Waves that escape a storm and are no longer receiving energy Figure 9.8 Waves approach each other. (a) If the crests or the
troughs of the approaching waves coincide, the height of the combined
from the storm winds tend to flatten out slightly, and their crests waves increases, and the waves are in phase; this is constructive
become more rounded. These waves moving across the ocean interference. (b) If the crests of one wave and the troughs of the other
surface as swell are likely to meet other trains of swell moving wave coincide, the waves cancel each other, and the waves are out of
away from other storm centers. When the two wave trains meet, phase; this is destructive interference.
they pass through each other and continue on. Wave trains may
intersect at any angle, and many possible interference patterns same or opposite direction and passing through each other can
may result. If the two wave trains intersect each other sharply, as join together in phase and suddenly develop large-amplitude
at a right angle, then a checkerboard pattern is formed (fig. 9.7). waves unrelated to local storms. If these waves become too high,
If the waves have similar lengths and heights and approach they may break, lose some of their energy, and create new,
from opposite directions (fig. 9.8a) and if the crests of one wave smaller waves. If such high waves overtake a vessel, they can
train coincide with the crests of another train, the wave trains re- cause severe damage.
inforce each other by constructive interference. If the crests of
a wave train coincide with the troughs of another wave train, the
waves are canceled through destructive interference (fig. 9.8b).
9.6 Wave Height
In this way, two or more similar wave trains traveling in the The height of wind waves is controlled by the interaction of sev-
eral factors. The three most important factors are (1) wind speed
(how fast the wind is blowing), (2) wind duration (how long the
wind blows), and (3) fetch (the distance over water that the wind
blows in the same direction). The wave height may be limited
by any one of these factors. If the wind speed is very low, large
waves are not produced, no matter how long the wind blows
over an unlimited fetch. If the wind’s speed is great but it blows
for only a few minutes, no high waves are produced despite
unlimited wind strength and fetch. Also, if very strong winds
blow for a long period over a very short fetch, no high waves
form. When no single one of these three factors is limiting, spec-
tacular wind waves are formed at sea.
Table 9.1 lists the maximum and significant wave
heights possible for certain average wind speeds when fetch and
wind duration are not limiting. The significant wave height is
defined as the average wave height of the highest one-third of
Figure 9.7 Waves meeting at right angles create a checkerboard the waves in a long record of measured wave heights. For ex-
pattern. ample, if a wave-height record of 1200 successive storm waves
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

Table 9.1 The Relationship Between Wind Speed and Wave Height
Average Significant Significant Significant Maximum Minimum Minimum
Wind Speed Wave Height Wave Period Wave Speed Wave Height Fetch1 Wind Duration1
(knots) (m/s) (m) (s) (m/s) (m) (km) (h)
10 5.1 1.22 5.5 8.58 2.19 16 2.4
20 10.2 2.44 7.3 11.39 4.39 110 10
30 15.3 5.79 12.5 19.50 10.43 450 23
40 20.4 14.33 18.0 28.00 25.79 1136 42
50 25.5 16.77 21.0 32.76 30.19 2272 69

1. Minimum fetch and minimum wind duration are distances and times required when wind speed is the only limiting factor in wave development.

is made and the individual wave heights are arranged in order

of height, the average height of the 400 highest waves defines Episodic Waves
the significant wave height. Significant wave heights are fore- Large waves, or episodic waves, can suddenly appear unrelated
cast from wind data, and the maximum wave heights are related to local sea conditions. An episodic wave is an abnormally high
to the significant wave heights by calculation. wave that occurs because of a combination of intersecting wave
The area of the ocean in the vicinity of 40°–50°S latitude trains, changing depths, and currents. We do not know a great
is ideal for the production of high waves. Here, in an area noted deal about these waves, as they do not exist for long and they
for high-intensity storms and strong winds of long duration can and do swamp ships, often eliminating any witnesses. They
(what sailors have called the “roaring forties and furious occur most frequently near the edge of the continental shelf, in
fifties”), there are no landmasses to interfere and limit the fetch water about 200 m (660 ft) deep, and in certain geographic ar-
length. The westerly winds blow almost continuously around eas with particular prevailing wind, wave, and current patterns.
Earth, adding energy to the sea surface for long periods of time The area where the Agulhas Current sweeps south along the east
and over great distances, resulting in waves that move in the coast of South Africa and meets the storm waves arising in the South-
same direction as the wind. Although this area is ideal for ern Ocean is noted for such waves. Storm waves from more than one
the production of high waves, such waves can occur anywhere storm may combine constructively and run into the current and
in the open sea, given the proper storm conditions. against the continental shelf, producing occasional episodic
A typical maximum fetch for a local storm over the ocean waves. This area is also one of the world’s busiest sea routes, as su-
is approximately 920 km (500 nautical mi). Because storm pertankers carrying oil from the Middle East ride the Agulhas Cur-
winds circulate around a low-pressure disturbance, the winds rent on their trip southward to round the Cape of Good Hope en route
continue to follow the waves on the side of the storm, along to Europe and America. The situation is an invitation to trouble, and
which wave direction is the same as the storm direction. This tankers have been damaged and lost in this area (fig. 9.9). In the
increases both the fetch and the duration of time over which the North Atlantic, strong northeasterly gales send large storm waves
wind adds energy to the waves. If the waves move fast enough, into the edge of the northward-moving Gulf Stream near the border
their speeds exceed the speed of the moving storm center; the of the continental shelf, resulting in the formation of large waves.
waves escape the generating wind, become free waves, and do The shallow North Sea also seems to provide suitable conditions for
not grow larger. Waves 10–15 m (33–49 ft) high are not uncom- extremely high episodic waves during its severe winter storms.
mon under severe storm conditions; such waves are typically be- Researchers studying these waves describe them as having a
tween 100 and 200 m (330 and 660 ft) long. This length is about height equal to a seven- or eight-story building (20–30 m, or
the same as the length of some modern ships, and a vessel of this 70–100 ft) and moving at a speed of 50 knots, with a wavelength
length encounters hazardous sailing conditions, because the ship approaching a half mile (0.9 km). If such a wave topples onto a ves-
may become suspended between the crests of two waves and sel that has dropped its bow into the preceding trough, there is no
break its back. escape from the thousands of tons of water crashing on the deck.
Giant waves over 30.5 m (100 ft) high are rare. In 1933, the In the North Sea, maximum potential wave height for an episodic
USS Ramapo, a Navy tanker en route from Manila to San Diego, wave is calculated as 33.8 m (111 ft), but 22.9 m (75 ft) is the high-
encountered a severe storm, or typhoon. As the ship was running est that has been observed. In the Agulhas Current area, researchers
downwind to ease the ride, it was overtaken by waves that, as searched the storm records for a twenty-year period and calculated
measured against the ship’s superstructure by the officer on a possible maximum wave height of about 57.9 m (190 ft).
watch, were 112 ft (34.2 m) high. The period of the waves was There are many disappearances of vessels for which episodic
measured at 14.8 seconds; the wave speed was calculated at 27 m waves are now suspected of being the chief cause. Many of the ca-
(90 ft) per second and the wavelength at 329 m (1100 ft). Other sualties are tankers or bulk carriers of ore, grain, and the like. These
storm waves in this size category have been reported, but none has vessels are susceptible not only because so many are at sea at any
been as well documented. It is also probable that ships confronted one time but also because of their design. Bulk carriers comprise a
with such waves do not always survive to report the incidents. bow section and an aft (or rear) section that includes the engine and
232 Sverdrup−Armbrust: An
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s
10. The Waves Text © The McGraw−Hill
Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

the crew accommodations. These sections

are separated by a series of flat-bottomed
boxes, or storage tanks, which make up the
majority of the vessel’s length. Because
these vessels are about 300 m (1000 ft)
long, they are subject to great wrenching
forces if a large portion of the hull is left un-
supported or is only partially supported
while suspended between wave crests.
More-traditional and smaller hull forms are
stronger, ride more easily, and are less likely
to be destroyed by these severe waves.

Wave Energy
A wave’s energy is present as potential
energy, due to the change in elevation of
the water surface, and as kinetic energy,
due to the motion of the water particles in
their orbits. The higher the wave, the
larger the diameter of the water particle
orbit and the greater the speed of the orbit- Figure 9.9 A giant wave breaking over the bow of the ESSO Nederland southbound in the
ing particle; therefore, the greater the ki- Agulhas Current. The bow of this supertanker is about 25 m (80 ft) above the water.
netic and potential energy. The energy in
a deep-water wave is nearly equally divided between kinetic and
potential energy. The total energy of a wave is distributed over
one wavelength per unit width (1 m) of crest from the sea sur-
face to a depth of L/2 and is related to the square of the wave
height. This relationship is demonstrated in figure 9.10. The en-
ergy density in a wave is the energy under a unit surface area of
the wave. Energy density is also related to the square of the wave

Wave Steepness
There is a maximum possible height for any given wavelength. This
maximum value is determined by the ratio of the wave’s height to
the wavelength, and it is the measure of the steepness of the wave:
height H
steepness  or S 
length L
If the ratio of the height to the length exceeds 1:7, the wave be-
comes too steep and the wave breaks. For example, if the wave-
length is 70 m (230 ft), the wave will break when the wave height
reaches 10 m (33 ft). The angle formed at the wave crest approaches
120°, and the wave becomes unstable. Under this condition, the
wave cannot maintain its shape; it collapses and breaks (fig. 9.11). Figure 9.10 Wave energy increases rapidly with the square of the
Small, unstable breaking waves are quite common. When wave height. Average wave energy is calculated per unit width of the
wind speeds reach 8–9 m/s (16–18 knots), waves known as crest and averaged over the wavelength (L) and the depth (L/2).
whitecaps can be observed. These waves have short wavelengths
(about 2 m), and the wind increases their height rapidly. As each
wave reaches the critical steepness and crest angle, it breaks and
is replaced by another wave produced by the rising wind.
Long waves at sea usually have a height well below their
maximum value. Sufficient wind energy to force them to
their maximum height rarely occurs. If a long wave does at- Figure 9.11 Wave steepness. When H/L approaches 1:7, the
tain maximum height and breaks in deep water, tons of water wave’s crest angle approaches 120° and the wave breaks.
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

Table 9.2 Universal Sea State Code

Sea State Code Description Average Wave Height
SS0 Sea like a mirror; wind less than 1 knot 0
SS1 A smooth sea; ripples, no foam; very light winds, 1–3 knots, not felt on face 0–0.3 m
0–1 ft
SS2 A slight sea; small wavelets; winds light to gentle, 4–6 knots, felt on face; light 0.3–0.6 m
flags wave 1–2 ft
SS3 A moderate sea; large wavelets, crests begin to break; winds gentle to moderate, 0.6–1.2 m
7–10 knots; light flags fully extend 2–4 ft
SS4 A rough sea; moderate waves, many crests break, whitecaps, some wind-blown 1.2–2.4 m
spray; winds moderate to strong breeze, 11–27 knots; wind whistles in the rigging 4–8 ft
SS5 A very rough sea; waves heap up, forming foam streaks and spindrift; winds 2.4–4.0 m
moderate to fresh gale, 28–40 knots; wind affects walking 8–13 ft
SS6 A high sea; sea begins to roll, forming very definite foam streaks and considerable 4.0–6.1 m
spray; winds at strong gale, 41–47 knots; loose gear and light canvas may be 13–20 ft
blown about or ripped
SS7 A very high sea; very high, steep waves with wind-driven overhanging crests; sea 6.1–9.1 m
surface whitens due to dense coverage with foam; visibility reduced due to 20–30 ft
wind-blown spray; winds at whole gale force, 48–55 knots
SS8 Mountainous seas; very high-rolling breaking waves; sea surface foam-covered; 9.1–13.7 m
very poor visibility; winds at storm level, 56–63 knots 30–45 ft
SS9 Air filled with foam; sea surface white with spray; winds 64 knots and above 13.7 m and above
45 ft and above

are sent crashing to the surface. The energy of the wave is lost the flapping of flags, slates blowing from roofs, and uprooting
in turbulence and in the production of smaller waves. Rather of trees. Admiral Beaufort related observations of the sea-sur-
than breaking, under such conditions it is more likely that the face state to wind speed and designed a 0–12 (calm to hurricane)
top of a large wave will be torn off by the wind and cascade wind scale with typical wave descriptions for each level of wind
down the wave face. This action does not completely destroy speed. This Beaufort Scale was adopted by the U.S. Navy in
the wave and is not considered to be the true collapse, or 1838, and the scale was extended from 0–17. At present, a
breaking, of such a wave. Universal Sea State Code of 0–9, based on the Beaufort Scale,
In addition, waves break and dissipate if intersecting wave is in international use for wind speeds and related sea-surface
trains pass through each other in proper phase to form a combined conditions (table 9.2).
wave with sufficient height to exceed the critical steepness. Waves
sometimes run into a strong opposing current, forcing the waves
to slow down. Remember that the speed of all waves equals the 9.7 Shallow-Water Waves
wavelength divided by the period (C  L/T) and that a wave’s pe- As a deep-water wave approaches the shore and moves into shal-
riod does not change. If the speed of a wave is reduced by an op- low water, the reduced depth begins to affect the shape of the or-
posing current, its wavelength must shorten. In such a case, the bits made by the water particles. The orbits gradually become
wave’s energy is confined to a shorter length, so the wave in- flattened circles, or ellipses (fig. 9.12). The wave begins to
creases in height to satisfy the height-energy relationship. If the “feel” the bottom, and the resulting friction and compression of
increase in height exceeds the maximum allowable height-to- the orbits reduce the forward speed of the wave.
length ratio for the shorter wavelength, the wave breaks. Cross- Remember that (1) the speed of all waves is equal to the
ing a sandbar into a harbor or river mouth during an outgoing or wavelength divided by period, and (2) the period of a wave does
falling tide is dangerous because the waves moving over the bar not change. Therefore, when the wave “feels bottom,” it slows,
and against the tidal current steepen and break. Entering a harbor and the accompanying reduction in the wavelength and speed re-
or river should be done at the change of the tide or on the rising sults in increased height and steepness as the wave’s energy is
tide, when the tidal current moves with the waves, stretching their condensed in a smaller water volume.
wavelengths and decreasing their heights. When the wave enters water with a depth of less than
one-twentieth the wavelength (D  L/20), the wave becomes a
shallow-water wave (fig. 9.13). The group speed, V, of shallow-
Universal Sea State Code water waves is equal to the speed, C, of each wave in the group.
In 1806, Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort of the British navy While the length and speed of a deep-water wave are determined
adapted a wind-estimation system from land to sea use. On land, by the wave period, the shallow-water wavelength and speed are
the clues to wind speed included smoke drift, the rustle of leaves, controlled only by the water depth. Here the wavelength and speed
234 Sverdrup−Armbrust: An
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s
10. The Waves Text © The McGraw−Hill
Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

speed. When waves from a distant storm cen-

C L ter approach the shore, they are likely to ap-
proach the beach at an angle. One end of the
wave crest comes into shallow water and be-
gins to feel bottom, while the other end is in
20 deeper water. The shallow-water end moves
more slowly than that portion of the wave in
Waves feel bottom Depth deeper water. The result is that the wave crests
No wave
motion bend, or refract, and tend to become oriented
parallel to the shore. This pattern is shown in
Shallow- Intermediate waves Deep-water figure 9.14. The wave rays drawn perpendic-
water waves waves
ular to the crests show the direction of motion
of the wave crests. Note that the refraction of
Depth < 20L ; C C and L decrease as Depth > L2 ; C and L are
and L depend depth decreases; constant and depend on water waves is similar to the refraction of light
on depth height increases wave period, T, only; and sound waves.
only; height height constant When approaching an irregular coastline
with headlands jutting into the ocean and bays
set back into the land, waves may encounter a
submerged ridge seaward from a headland or
Figure 9.12 Deep-water waves become intermediate waves and then shallow-water waves
as depth decreases and wave motion interacts with the sea floor. a depression in front of a bay. As waves ap-
proach such a coastline and feel the bottom, the
portion of the wave crest over the ridge slows
down more than the wave crests on either side.
Therefore, the crests wrap around the headland
in the pattern shown in figure 9.15. This re-
fraction pattern focuses wave energy on the
headland. Waves must gain in height as their
wavelength is shortened and the total wave en-
ergy is crowded into a smaller volume of wa-
Figure 9.13 Shallow-water wave particles move in elliptical orbits. The orbits flatten with ter; this increases the energy per unit of surface
depth due to interference from the sea floor. Red arrows indicate the direction a water particle at area. Therefore, more energy is expended on a
the surface moves as the wave propagates to the right (in the direction of wave propagation at unit length of shore at the point of the headland
the crest and in the opposite direction at the trough).
than on a unit length of shore elsewhere.
The central area at the mouth of the bay is
are determined by the square root of the product of Earth’s grav- usually deeper than the areas to each side, so the advancing waves
itational acceleration (g, 9.81 m/s2) and depth (D): slow down more on the sides than in the center. Because the wave-
lengths remain long in the center and shorten on each side, the
C  √gD or C  3.13 √D
wave crests bulge toward the center of the bay. The waves in the
or L  3.13 T √D center of the bay do not shorten as much; therefore, they have less
When the condition for a shallow-water wave is met, the orbits height and less energy to expend per length of shoreline. This pat-
of the water particles are elliptical; they become flatter with depth tern is shown in figure 9.16. The result is an environment of low
until, at the sea floor, only a back-and-forth oscillatory motion wave energy, providing sheltered water in the bay. Overall, this un-
remains (fig. 9.13). Note that the horizontal dimension of the equal distribution of wave energy along the coast results in a wear-
orbit remains unchanged in shallow water. See appendix C for ing down of the headlands and a filling in of the bays, as the sand
a more complete equation and the method used to calculate and mud settle out in the quieter water. If all coastal materials had
approximations of shallow-water wavelength and celerity. the same resistance to wave erosion, this process would lead in
When the water depth is between L/2 and L/20, the speed time to a straightening of the coastline; but the rocky structure of
of the wave is also slowed. Waves in this depth range are called many headlands resists wave erosion; therefore, the cliffs remain.
intermediate waves. No simple algebraic equation exists to de-
termine the speed of these intermediate waves. Methods for Reflection
working with intermediate waves using the full wave-speed
equation are found in appendix C. A straight, smooth, vertical barrier in water deep enough to pre-
vent waves from breaking reflects the waves (fig. 9 .17). The bar-
rier may be a cliff, steep beach, breakwater, bulkhead, or other
Refraction structure. The reflected waves pass through the incoming waves
Waves are refracted, or bent, as they move from deep to shallow to produce an interference pattern, and steep, choppy seas often
water, begin to feel the bottom, and change wavelength and wave result. If the waves reflect directly back on themselves, the
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

resulting waves appear to stand still, rising

and falling in place. The behavior of waves
reflected from a curved vertical surface de-
pends on the type of curvature. If the curva-
ture is convex, the reflected wave rays
spread and disperse the wave energy, but if
the curved surface is concave, the reflected
wave rays converge and the energy is fo-
cused. This situation is similar to the reflec-
tion of light from curved mirrors. Great care
must be taken in designing walls and barri-
ers to protect an area from waves to be sure
that the energy of reflected waves is not fo-
Figure 9.14 Waves moving inshore at an oblique angle to the depth contours are refracted. cused in a way that will result in another
One end of the wave reaches a depth of L/2 or less and slows, while the other end of the wave area being damaged.
maintains its speed in deeper water. Wave rays drawn perpendicular to the crests show the
direction of wave travel and the bending of the wave crests.
Another phenomenon that is associated with
waves as they approach the shore or other ob-
stacles is diffraction. Diffraction is caused by
the spread of wave energy sideways to the di-
rection of wave travel. If waves move toward
a barrier with a small opening (fig. 9.18a),
some wave energy passes through the small
opening to the other side. Once the waves
have passed through the opening, their
crests decrease in height and radiate out and
away from the gap. A portion of the wave en-
ergy is diffracted, transported sideways
from its original direction. If more than one
gap is open to the waves, the patterns pro-
duced by the spreading waves from the open-
ings may intersect and form interference
Figure 9.15 The energy of waves refracted over a shallow, submerged ridge is focused on
patterns as the waves move through each
the headland. The converging wave rays show the wave energy being crowded into a small
other (fig. 9.18b).
volume of water, increasing the energy per unit length of wave crest as the height of the wave
increases. If the waves approach a barrier without
an opening, diffraction can still occur. En-
ergy will be transported at right angles to the
wave crests as the waves pass the end of the
barrier (fig. 9.19). Note that the pattern pro-
duced is one-half of the pattern observed
when the waves pass through a narrow open-
ing, as in figure 9.18a. Energy is trans-
ported behind the sheltered (or lee) side of
the barrier. This effect is an important con-
sideration in planning the construction of
breakwaters and other coastal barriers in-
tended to protect vessels in harbors from
wave action and possible damage.

Navigation from Wave

Figure 9.16 Waves refracted by the shallow depths on each side of the bay deliver lower
levels of energy inside the bay. The diverging wave rays show the spreading of energy over a In areas of the world where the winds blow
larger volume of water, decreasing the energy per unit length of wave crest as the wave height steadily and from one direction, as in the
decreases. trade-wind belts, waves at sea are very
236 Sverdrup−Armbrust: An
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s
10. The Waves Text © The McGraw−Hill
Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

Figure 9.17 The wave from a ship’s wake is reflected from a Figure 9.19 Diffraction occurs behind the breakwater.
concrete wall. The principal wave is moving from lower left to upper
right of the photograph. The reflected wave is moving from lower right
to upper left. A checkerboard pattern is formed as the principal wave and
reflected wave move through each other at approximately right angles.


Figure 9.18 Diffraction patterns

produced by waves passing through narrow
openings (a, b). Note the interference pattern
produced when diffracted waves interact (b).

regular in their direction of motion, and this regularity allows a The Polynesians of the past lived with the sea; it was their
vessel to maintain a constant course relative to the waves. Be- home, and they were acutely sensitive to its changes. They made
cause waves change speed, shape, and height with water depth, long voyages in their small canoes using their knowledge of
and because waves change direction and pattern because of re- wave patterns. They had no theory to explain these patterns, but
fraction, diffraction, and reflection, it is possible to deduce the they understood the association with winds, shores, and islands.
presence of shoals, bars, islands, and coasts from the changes in Combining their knowledge of star positions, cloud forms over
wave patterns. land and sea, and bird flights with their knowledge of waves, they
Careful direct observation of wave patterns, or the sensing sailed many hundreds, even thousands, of miles across the open
of wave patterns through the motions of a small craft, even at ocean to reach their destinations. No navigational tools were re-
night, allows the detection of a change in the angle between quired other than charts constructed from twigs and shells, show-
waves and wind direction or a change in the wave pattern. Al- ing island positions relative to stars, wind direction, and swell.
though these changing patterns are subtle, they can be detected An example of such a chart is found in chapter 4. These people
many miles downwind from islands and can be used to bring a learned by living with and observing nature in an area where na-
small vessel to shore when no landmarks are visible. ture cooperated by behaving in regular and predictable ways.
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

9.8 The Surf Zone most common types of breakers are plungers and spillers
(fig. 9.20).
The surf zone is the shallow area along the coast in which the Plunging breakers form on narrow, steep beach slopes. The
waves slow rapidly, steepen, break, and disappear in the turbu- curling crest outruns the rest of the wave, curves over the air be-
lence and spray of expended energy. The width of this zone is low it, and breaks with a sudden loss of energy and a splash. The
variable and is related to both the wavelength and height of the more common spilling breaker is found over wider, flatter
arriving waves and the changing depth pattern. Longer, higher beaches, where the energy is extracted more gradually as the
waves, which feel the bottom before shorter waves, become un- wave moves over the shallow bottom. This action results in the
stable and break farther offshore in deeper water. If shallow less dramatic wave form, consisting of turbulent water and bub-
depths extend offshore for some distance, the surf zone is wider bles flowing down the collapsing wave face. The spilling break-
than it is over a sharply sloping shore. ers last longer than the plungers because they lose energy more
gradually. Therefore, spillers give surfers a longer ride, but
plungers give them a more exciting one.
Breakers The slow curling over of the crest observed on some break-
Breakers form in the surf zone because the water particle ers begins at a point on the crest and then moves lengthwise
motion at depth is affected by the bottom. Orbital motion is along the wave crest as the wave approaches shore. This move-
slowed and compressed vertically, but the orbit speed of ment of the curl along the crest occurs because waves are sel-
water particles near the crest of the wave is not slowed as dom exactly parallel to a beach. The curl begins at the point on
much. The particles at the wave crest move faster toward the the crest that is in the shallowest water or the point at which the
shore than the rest of the wave form, resulting in the curling crest height is slightly greater, and it moves along the crest as
of the crest and the eventual breaking of the wave. The two the rest of the wave approaches the beach. The result is the
“tube” so sought after by surfers (fig. 9.21).
If the waves approaching the beach are uniform in length,
period, and height, they are the swells from some far-distant
storm, which have had time and distance to sort into uniform
groups. For example, the long surfing waves of the California



Figure 9.20 Breaking waves. A plunger (a) loses energy more Figure 9.21 A surfer rides the tube of a large curling wave in
quickly than a spiller (b). Hawaii.
238 Sverdrup−Armbrust: An
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s
10. The Waves Text © The McGraw−Hill
Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

beaches in summer begin in the winter storms of the South

Pacific and Antarctic Oceans. If the waves are of different
heights, lengths, and periods and break at varying distances
from the beach, then unsorted waves have arrived and are
probably the product of a nearby local storm superimposed on
the swell.

Water Transport
The small net drift of water in the direction the waves are trav-
eling (refer to the discussion in section 9.3 on the water par-
ticle orbits of real waves) is intensified in the surf zone, as the
shoreward motion of the water particles at the crest becomes
greater than the return particle motion at the trough. Because the
crests usually approach the beach at an angle, the surf zone
transport of water flows both toward the beach and along the
beach. The result is that water accumulates against the beach and
flows along the beach until it can flow seaward again and return
to the area beyond the surf zone. This return flow generally oc-
curs in quieter water with smaller wave heights, for example, in
areas with troughs or depressions in the sea floor.
Because regions of seaward return flow may be narrow and
some distance apart, the flow in these areas must be swift in or-
der to carry enough water beyond the surf zone to balance the
slower but more extensive flow toward the beach. These regions
of rapid seaward flow are called rip currents. Rip currents can
be a major hazard to surf swimmers. In the spring of 1994, five
swimmers were drowned and six others were hurt in a single rip
current system at American Beach, Florida, and in 1995, three
more swimmers drowned in severe rip currents caused by storm
waves from Hurricane Felix.
Swimmers who unknowingly venture into a rip current will Figure 9.22 Small rip currents carry turbid water seaward through
find themselves carried seaward and unable to swim back to the surf zone.
shore against the flow; they must swim parallel to the beach, or
across the rip current, and then return to shore. Because of the accompanying release of energy is explosive and can result in
danger associated with rip currents, swimmers should be on the rocks and debris from the water’s edge being hurled high up on
lookout for indicators of their presence, including (1) turbid wa- the beach by the force of the water. Minot’s Lighthouse on the
ter and floating debris moving seaward through the surf zone, south side of Massachusetts Bay is 30 m (100 ft) high, but it is
(2) areas of reduced wave heights in the surf zone, and (3) de- regularly engulfed in spray. Lonely Tillamook Light off the
pressions in the beach running perpendicular to the shore. Oregon coast had to have steel gratings installed to protect the
Wave action on the beach stirs up the sand particles and glass that shields the light 40 m (130 ft) above sea level, after
temporarily suspends them in the water. The sand is carried the glass had been broken several times by wave-thrown rocks.
along the beach parallel to the shore until the rip current is In every winter storm, waves displace boulders weighing many
reached, and the sand is transported seaward. Viewed from a tons from breakwaters along the world’s coasts.
height, such as a high cliff or a low-flying airplane, rip currents Waves do not always expend their energy on the shore. Some
are seen as streaks of discolored turbid water extending seaward break farther seaward on sandbars such as those associated with
through the clearer water of the outer surf zone (fig. 9.22). river mouths and estuaries. The famous bar at the mouth of the
Columbia River is responsible for extremely hazardous conditions
for both fishing and commercial vessels, and in winter it often pro-
Energy Release duces casualties. On an ebbing (or falling) tide, waves approach-
Watching the heavy surf pounding a beach from a safe vantage ing the bar against the current rise and break at heights up to 20 m
point is an exciting and exhilarating experience; the trick is to (66 ft). The Coast Guard uses the Columbia River entrance to train
determine at what point one is safe. In a narrow surf zone dur- its crews to operate roll-over, or self-righting, rescue boats, which
ing a period of very large waves, the wave energy must be ex- are used during storms and heavy surf conditions.
pended rapidly over a short distance. Under these conditions, the The great driftwood logs found stranded on some beaches
height of the waves and the forward motion of the water parti- may be set afloat again at high tide during severe winter storms
cles combine to send the water high up on the beach. The and can become lethal battering rams when hurled shoreward by
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

the surf. Even with less severe waves, beach logs lying near the currents that form at the entrance of a bay or an inlet where large
water’s edge have a dangerous potential. The unsuspecting va- volumes of water oscillate in and out, producing dangerous and
cationer sits or plays on such a log, and when the occasional destructive current surges. If these oscillating flows occur at the
higher wave rolls it over, the person may become trapped under natural oscillation period of the bay, large changes in water level
the log and crushed or drowned by the succeeding waves. Logs are created (see section 9.11).
in or near the surf represent a great danger for the unwary. The leading edge of the tsunami wave group may be either a
Where are you safe? You must be the judge. crest or a trough. If the initial crustal disturbance is an upward
motion, a crest arrives first; if the crustal motion is downward, a
trough precedes the crest. If a trough arrives at the shore first, the
9.9 Tsunami water level drops by as much as 3–4 m (10–13 ft) within two to
Sudden movements of Earth’s crust may produce a seismic sea three minutes. People who follow the receding water to inspect
wave, or tsunami. These waves are often incorrectly called tidal exposed sea life may drown, for in another four to five minutes, the
waves. Because a seismic sea wave has nothing to do water rises 6–8 m (20–26 ft), and they will not be able to outrun
with tides, oceanographers have adopted the Japanese word the wall of advancing water. In still another four to five minutes,
tsunami, meaning harbor wave, to replace the misleading term a trough with a water-level drop of 6–8 m (20–26 ft) arrives, and
tidal wave. Tsunami is a synonym for seismic sea wave. the water flowing away from the beach will carry debris out to sea.
If a large area, maybe several hundred square kilometers, Tsunamis are most likely to occur in ocean basins that are tec-
of Earth’s crust below the sea surface is suddenly displaced, it tonically active. The Pacific Ocean, ringed by crustal faults and
may cause a sudden rise or fall in the overlying sea surface. In volcanic activity, is the birthplace of most tsunamis. They also ap-
the case of a rise, gravity causes the suddenly elevated water to pear in the Indian Ocean, in the Caribbean Sea, which is bounded
return to the equilibrium surface level; if a depression is pro- by an active island arc system, and in the Mediterranean Sea. The
duced, gravity causes the surrounding water to flow into it. Both spectacular havoc and destruction caused by these waves are
events result in the production of waves with extremely long well recorded. In August 1883, the Indonesian island of Kraka-
wavelengths (100–200 km, or 60–120 mi) and long periods as toa erupted and was nearly destroyed in a gigantic volcanic ex-
well (ten–twenty minutes). The average depth of the oceans is plosion that hurled several cubic miles of material into the air.
about 4000 m (4 km, or 13,000 ft); this depth is less than one- A series of tsunamis followed; these waves had unusually long pe-
twentieth the wavelength of these waves, so tsunamis are riods of one to two hours. The town of Merak, 53 km (33 mi)
shallow-water waves. These waves radiate from the point of the away and on another island, was inundated by waves over
seismic disturbance at a speed determined by the ocean’s 30.5 m (or 100 ft) high, and a large ship was carried nearly 3 km
depth (C  √gD) and move across the oceans at about 200 m/s (2 mi) inland and left stranded 9.2 m (30 ft) above sea level.
(400 mph). Because they are shallow-water waves, tsunamis may More than 35,000 people died from these enormous waves, and
be refracted, diffracted, or reflected in mid-ocean by changes in as the waves moved across the oceans, water-level recorders
seafloor topography and by mid-ocean islands. were affected as far away as Cape Horn (12,500 km, or 7800 mi)
When a tsunami leaves its point of origin, it may have a and Panama (18,200 km, or 11,400 mi). The waves were travel-
height of several meters, but this height is distributed over its ing with a speed calculated at about 200 m/s, or 400 mi/h.
many-kilometer wavelength. It is not easily seen or felt when su- On April 1, 1946, an earthquake in the area of the Aleutian
perimposed on the other motions of the sea’s surface, and a ves- Trench off Alaska produced a series of tsunamis. These waves
sel in the open ocean is in little or no danger if a tsunami passes. heavily damaged Hilo, Hawaii, killing more than 150 people. Not
The danger occurs only if the vessel has the misfortune to be di- only the portion of the island facing the oncoming waves was
rectly above the area of the original seismic disturbance. damaged; the waves bent around the island by refraction and were
The energy of a tsunami is distributed from the ocean sur- diffracted when passing between islands, producing high waves
face to the ocean floor and over the length of the wave. When that struck the sheltered side of the island. The tsunami waves
the path of the wave is blocked by a coast or an island, the wave from the 1946 earthquake were highest near their source in the
behaves like any other shallow-water wave; it slows (to approx- Aleutian Islands, where they destroyed a concrete lighthouse 10 m
imately 80 km [50 mi] per hour), its wavelength decreases, and (33 ft) above sea level at Scotch Cap and killed the crew. A radio
its energy is compressed into a smaller water volume as the mast mounted 33 m (108 ft) above sea level in the same area was
depth rapidly decreases. This sudden confinement of energy to also destroyed. In 1957, Hawaii was hit again, with waves higher
a smaller volume increases the energy density and causes the than the 1946 series; but no lives were lost because early warn-
wave height to build rapidly, and the loss of energy is equally ings alerted people to evacuate. In 1964, the Alaska earthquake
rapid when the wave breaks. A tremendous surge of moving that severely damaged Anchorage and Alaskan coastal towns pro-
water races up over the land, flooding the coast for a period duced tsunamis that selectively hit areas on the west coast of Van-
that lasts five to ten minutes before the water flows seaward, couver Island and the northern coast of California.
exposing the nearshore sea floor. The surge destroys buildings On September 1, 1992, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake occurred
and docks; large ships may be left far up on the shore. The 100 km (60 mi) off the Nicaraguan coast. The tsunamis produced
receding water carries the debris from the surge, battering and by this earthquake killed 170 people, injured 500, and destroyed
buffeting everything in its path. In bays and inlets, the rising and 1500 homes. Eyewitnesses recall a single large wave, preceded by
falling of the water may not be as destructive as the extreme a trough that lowered the harbor depth by 7 m (23 ft). In this case,
240 Sverdrup−Armbrust: An
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s
10. The Waves Text © The McGraw−Hill
Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

the maximum run-up was 10 m (33 ft); run-

ups of 2–6 m (7–19 ft) were more common.
This event was triggered by an earthquake in
a previously stationary section of a fault region
associated with the Cocos Plate where it is be-
ing subducted under the Caribbean Plate.
On December 12, 1992, an earthquake
of magnitude 7.5 struck Flores Island in the
Sunda and Banda island arc systems. The
quake epicenter was only 50 km (30 mi)
northwest of the town of Maumere, and five
minutes after the quake, the first of a series
of tsunamis struck the town. The earthquake
and the tsunamis caused 2080 reported
deaths and 2144 injuries. Average water run-
up on the shore was 5 m (16 ft), with a max-
imum of 19.8 m (65 ft) at the northeast
corner of the island.
After ten o’clock at night on July 12,
1993, a magnitude-7.8 earthquake occurred
in the Sea of Japan at the boundary of the
Eurasian and North American Plates and Figure 9.23 Aonae at the southern tip of Okushiri Island in the Sea of Japan after the tsunami
very close to Okushiri Island off the south- and fire of 1993. The area on the left extending to the tip of the island was leveled despite the
west coast of Hokkaido. Six minutes after protecting seawall. Debris left in the streets by the surging water prevented fire control equipment
the earthquake began, a tsunami swept over from reaching the burning buildings.
a 5 m (16 ft) seawall, destroyed buildings,
and ruptured propane tanks that set fire to the
town of Aonae at the southern end of
Okushiri Island. In this case, the longest
wave run-up was 30 m (100 ft), with more
typical values at 10–15 m (33–50 ft). One
hundred eighty-five people died, and the
property loss was estimated at $600 million
(fig. 10.23).
A massive tsunami struck the northwest
coast of Papua, New Guinea, on July 17,
1998. The 7–15 m (22–50 ft) high tsunami
swept across the barrier beach parallel to
Sissano Lagoon, destroying four fishing vil-
lages (fig. 9.24). Three waves swept debris
and bodies into the lagoon and the man-
grove trees beyond. More than 2000 persons
were killed or reported missing. The
tsunami was triggered by a close-to-shore
underwater earthquake (magnitude 7 on the
Richter scale) that caused a 2 m (6 ft) verti-
cal drop along a 40 km (24 mi) fault in the
sea floor, followed by an underwater land- Figure 9.24 The tsunami that struck the northwest coast of Papua, New Guinea, July 17,
slide. Although the island experienced 1998, destroyed a chain of villages along 30 km (18 mi) of beach bordering Sissano Lagoon.
tremors thirty minutes before the arrival of Buildings, trees, and people were swept away by three waves 7–15 m (22–50 ft) high. The
the first wave, their significance was not eroded beach and the shattered palms were all that was left of many communities.
recognized in the shore area.
The most destructive tsunami in history in terms of loss Shortly before eight o’clock in the morning, a massive earth-
of life was the December 26, 2004, Sumatra tsunami that devas- quake ruptured the sea floor off the northwest coast of Sumatra,
tated coastlines in the Indian Ocean basin. (See Field Notes en- resulting in as much as 10 m (33 ft) of vertical displacement. This
titled “Modeling the December 26, 2004, Sumatra Tsunami.”) earthquake was the result of the subduction of the Indian Plate
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
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beneath the Eurasian Plate. An international team of scientists Hawaii and Alaska in 1946, after the April 1, 1946, tsunamis
studying the effects of the tsunami in Sumatra documented wave that struck Hawaii. Tsunami detection in the Pacific Ocean
heights of 20–30 m (65–100 ft) at the island’s northwest end and basin is now aided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
found evidence suggesting that wave heights may have ranged Administration’s (NOAA) Deep-Ocean Assessment and
from 15–30 m (50–100 ft) along at least a 100 km (62 mi) stretch Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) program. The DART program
of the northwest coast. The worst damage is thought to have operates forty open-ocean tsunameters for detecting
occurred in the province of Aceh, roughly 100 km (62 mi) from tsunamis (fig. 9.26). Additional tsunameters are operated by
the epicenter of the earthquake (fig. 9.25a–c). About one-third the Australian, Chilean, Indonesian, and Thai governments.
of the 320,000 residents of Aceh’s capital, Banda Aceh, are Each instrument consists of a surface buoy (fig. 9.27a) for
presumed to have been killed. real-time data transmission connected to an anchored
The tragic loss of life caused by the Sumatra tsunami was seafloor bottom package that includes a bottom pressure
compounded by the lack of tsunami detection instruments in recorder (fig. 9 .27b). Each instrument is designed to be de-
the Indian Ocean basin, similar to those in the Pacific Ocean ployed for 24 months at depths of up to 6000 m (19,700 ft).
basin, and a coordinated tsunami alert plan in the region. These instruments have measured tsunamis characterized by
Tsunami Prediction and Warning Centers were first located in amplitudes less than 1 cm in the deep ocean. Data are trans-
mitted from the bottom pressure recorder on the sea floor to
the surface buoy and then relayed via satellite to ground
The tsunameters operate in two modes, standard and event.
In standard mode, they measure water pressure due to the height
of the water column above them every 15 seconds to obtain an
average value over a 15 minute period of time. In this mode,
four measurements are transmitted each hour. When a computer
on the instrument detects a possible tsunami, the instrument
goes into event mode. In event mode, the instrument transmits
15-second values during the initial few minutes, followed by
1-minute averages. The system returns to standard mode after
4 hours of 1-minute transmissions if no additional events are


(b) (c)

Figure 9.25 (a) A mosque is left standing amid the rubble in Banda Aceh, Sumatra. Several mosques survived and may have been saved by the
open ground floor that is part of their design. The tsunami waves reached the middle of the second floor. (b) Boat carried inland by the tsunami.
(c) Typical tsunami damage in Banda Aceh. (Photos courtesy of the United States Geological Survey.)
242 Sverdrup−Armbrust: An
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Field Notes
Modeling the December 26, 2004,
Sumatra Tsunami
by Dr. Eddie Bernard
Dr. Eddie Bernard is the Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine
Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington. He directs a broad range of oceanographic research
programs, including ocean climate dynamics, fisheries oceanography, El Niño forecasts, tsunamis, and
seafloor spreading. Dr. Bernard is an expert in the study of tsunamis.

At 07:59 Local Time (00.59 UTC) on December 26, 2004, a

magnitude-9.3 megathrust earthquake occurred along 1300 km
(800 mi) of the oceanic subduction zone located 100 km (62 mi)
west of Sumatra and the Nicobar and Andaman Islands in the
eastern Indian Ocean. Highly destructive tsunamis were generated
by up to 10 m (33 ft) vertical displacements of the sea floor asso-
ciated with massive (more than 20 m [65 ft] horizontally) sudden
movements of adjacent plates during this event. Although the ex-
act numbers will never be accurately known, it is estimated that
237,000 people died and over $13 billion in damage occurred.
Some economists estimate that the tsunami devastation will place
about 1 million people in poverty for the rest of their lives. The
tsunami was in excess of 30 m (100 ft) as it assaulted the Suma-
tra coastline (box fig. 1) and was recorded around the world. This
tsunami is the first for which there are high-quality worldwide tide
gauge measurements and for which there are multiple-satellite al-
timetry passes that were able to measure the tsunami wave height
in the open ocean. These widespread coastal and open-ocean
measurements of the tsunami height have been used to further re-
fine a global tsunami numerical model, known as MOST (Method 5m
of Splitting Tsunami), used to predict the propagation and wave
heights of tsunamis all over the world. The objective of tsunami
modeling is to develop faster and more reliable forecasts of
tsunamis striking coastal regions. A comparison of the actual
measured tsunami heights with the predicted heights from the
MOST model have revealed some factors that contributed to the
propagation of the tsunami’s energy thousands of kilometers
throughout the world oceans.
The first instrumental tsunami measurements were available
about three hours after the earthquake from the real-time report-
ing tide gauge at the Cocos Islands (box fig. 2) located approxi-
mately 1700 km (1056 mi) south of the earthquake source area.
Data from this gauge revealed a 30 cm (11.8 in) high first wave fol-
lowed by a long train of water level oscillations with maximum
peak-to-trough ranges of 53 cm (21 in). Gauge data and inunda-
tion measurements from sites in India and Sri Lanka at similar dis-
tances from the epicenter yielded amplitudes almost ten times Box Figure 1 Tsunami inundation along the northern Sumatra
greater than the Cocos Islands values. These significant wave coastline where flooding exceeded 30 m (98 ft) and caused the most
height differences were consistent with numerical modeling results deaths and damage. The white staff in the center of the photograph is
that clearly demonstrate the highly directional nature of the Suma- 5 m (16.5 ft). Photo courtesy of Jose Borrero, University of Southern
tra tsunami (box fig. 2). California.
Satellite altimetry measurements of tsunami amplitude were
obtained from the Jason-1 and Topex/Poseidon satellites (see
chapter 4, section 4.10) as they transited the Indian Ocean about
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
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Box Figure 2 Global chart showing energy propagation of the 2004 Sumatra tsunami calculated from MOST. Star denotes the epicenter of the
earthquake. Filled colors show maximum computed tsunami heights during forty-four hours of wave propagation simulation. Contours show
computed arrival time of tsunami waves. Circles denote the locations and amplitudes of tsunami waves in three range categories for selected tide
gauge stations. Inset shows fault geometry of the model source and close-up of the computed wave heights in the Bay of Bengal. Distribution of
the slip among four sub-faults (from south to north: 21 m [69 ft], 13 m [43 ft], 17 m [56 ft], 2 m [6.6 ft]) provides best fit for satellite altimetry data and
correlates well with seismic and geodetic data inversions (from Titov, et al., 2005).

150 km (93 mi) apart approximately two hours after the quake. The the role of mid-ocean ridges in guiding inter-ocean tsunami
tracks crossed the spreading front of the tsunami waves in the Bay propagation (box fig. 2). The Southwest Indian Ridge and the Mid-
of Bengal down to about 1200 km (745 mi) southward from Atlantic Ridge served as wave-guides for tsunami energy propaga-
Sri Lanka. The measurements revealed amplitudes of about tion into the Atlantic Ocean while the Southeast Indian Ridge,
50–70 cm (20–28 in) of the leading tsunami wave at this location Pacific-Antarctic Ridge, and the East Pacific Rise served as guides
in the Indian Ocean. for waves entering the Pacific. Results further show that ridges act
Box figure 2 summarizes simulation results from the as wave guides only until their curvature exceeds critical angles at
tsunami numerical model MOST for a model tsunami source con- locations along the tsunami wave paths. For example, the sharp
strained to produce the observed open-ocean satellite wave height bend of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the South Atlantic results in the
measurements and the known characteristics of the earthquake tsunami ray leaving the wave-guide near 40°S and hitting the
that generated the tsunami. Model results support suggestions Atlantic coast of South America with relatively high wave ampli-
that there are two main factors affecting the direction the tsunami tudes. The model predicts the large (∼1 m [∼3 ft]) peak waves ob-
wave travels and its height: the orientation of the earthquake served at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (box fig. 2). The Ninety-East Ridge
source region and the effect of mid-ocean ridges to act as wave caused focusing of wave energy and increased tsunami height
guides. southward toward the coast of Antarctica. There were no gauge sta-
For waves far from the epicenter of the earthquake, seafloor tions on the coast of Antarctica directly in line with the beam of
topography is the main factor determining the directionality of
energy propagation. Analysis of the global tsunami model illustrates (continued)
244 Sverdrup−Armbrust: An
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Introduction to the World’s
10. The Waves Text © The McGraw−Hill
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(concluded) Although no direct tsunami damage has been reported for the
2004 event outside of the Indian Ocean basin, the numerical study
tsunami energy arriving from the Ninety-East Ridge, and only mod- demonstrated the ability for tsunami energy to be transported
erate (60–70 cm [24–28 in]) peak-to-peak waves were recorded at throughout the world ocean. Thus, large tsunamis can propagate
the French Dumont d’Urville station and the Japanese station substantial and damaging wave energy to distant coasts, includ-
Syowa on the coast of Antarctica. ing different oceans, through a combination of source focusing
For most of the eastern and central Indian Ocean records, the and bathymetric wave-guides.
first few waves were the largest (up to twelve hours of anomalously
high wave intensity), followed by relatively rapid exponential wave To Learn More About the Sumatra Tsunami
attenuation. Model simulations illustrate that these records are
Smith, W. H. F., R. Scharroo, V. V. Titov, D. Arcas, and B. K. Arbic.
from locations where the largest tsunami waves followed a direct 2005. Satellite Altimeters Measure Tsunami, Early Model Estimates
route from the source following initial focusing by the source con- Confirmed, Oceanography, 18 (2), p. 10–12.
figuration. Tide gauge recordings from the western Indian and Titov, V. V., A. B. Rabinovich, H. O. Mofjeld, R. E. Thomson, and F. I.
other oceans show increased tsunami duration, with maximum González. 2005. The global reach of the 26 December 2004
waves arriving later in the first wave train. This demonstrates in- Sumatra Tsunami, Science, 309 (5743), pp. 2045–2048.
creased input from waves that reached the gauge locations after
scattering or refracting from shallow submarine features and re- Internet References
flecting from the coasts.
The prolonged tsunami records for the Atlantic Ocean are
consistent with substantial tsunami energy propagation along the
Mid-Atlantic Ridge wave-guide. In the Pacific Ocean, wave trains
for the Sumatra tsunami often contained two or more distinct warning.html
“packets” with different wave height and frequency characteris-
tics. Because it is so vast, the Pacific Ocean allows for two differ-
ent propagation paths for most coastal locations.

60 N

40 N

20 ˚ ˚
20 N

0 ˚

20 S

40 S

60 E 100 E
˚ 140 E
˚ 180
˚ ˚
140 W
100 W
60 W
20 W 60 S
Station Owners
NOAA DART Thailand
Australia Indonesia

Figure 9.26 NOAA’s Project DART (Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis). Tsunameters are deployed near regions with a history of
tsunami generation, to ensure measurement of the waves as they propagate toward coastal communities and to acquire data critical to real-time forecasts.
Locations of the thirty-six tsunameters comprising the network (red circles) are shown on this map along with additional tsunameters operated by the
Australian, Chilean, Indonesian, and Thai governments.
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition


Figure 9.27 (a) A DART tsunameter surface buoy. (b) A bottom

pressure recorder used to detect variations in sea surface elevation by
measuring changes in water pressure. Data obtained by the pressure
recorder are transmitted to the buoy and then on to a satellite which
relays the data to tsunami warning centers.

the deeper water may also be seen breaking the sea surface. The
water over the trough of the internal wave is generally smooth.
(a) Sometimes, instead of visible bands, elevations and depressions
of the sea surface occur as the internal waves pass (fig. 9.28).
Many processes are responsible for internal waves. A lowpres-
sure storm system may elevate the sea surface and depress the py-
cnocline. When the storm moves away, the displaced pycnocline
9.10 Internal Waves will oscillate as it returns to its equilibrium level. If the speed of
The waves discussed to this point have all formed at the inter- a surface current changes abruptly at the pycnocline, internal
face of the atmosphere and the ocean. This interface marks the waves may be generated. Currents moving over rough bottom to-
common boundary between two fluids of different densities, air pography may also produce internal waves. If a thin layer of low-
and water. Another interface between two fluids lies below the density surface water allows a ship’s propeller to reach the
ocean surface at the pycnocline that separates the shallow mixed pycnocline, the energy from the propeller creates internal
layer from the denser underlying water. In this case, the bound- waves; under this condition, the ship’s propeller becomes ineffi-
ary is less abrupt and the density difference is not as great as it cient because internal waves created at the pycnocline carry en-
is at the air-water boundary. The waves that form along this ergy away from the vessel instead of driving the vessel forward.
boundary are known as internal waves (fig. 9.28). These in- This results in a loss of speed that mariners call the “dead water
ternal waves cause the boundary to oscillate as the wave form effect.”
progresses between the water layers. The relationship of wavelength and depth to wave speed is
Internal waves are slower than surface waves. They typi- similar for both internal and surface waves (see section 9.5).
cally have wavelengths from hundreds of meters to tens of When the internal waves are short relative to the water depth,
kilometers and periods from tens of minutes to several hours. the density (rho  ) of both layers must be included in the
Their height often exceeds 50 m and may be limited by the equation. Wave speed squared (C 2) is equal to Earth’s acceler-
thickness of the surface layer. The orbital motion generated by ation due to gravity (g) divided by 2 times the wavelength (L)
internal waves of water particles is illustrated in fig. 9.28a. The times a ratio of densities, where  (rho) is the density of the
radius of the circular motion of the water particles is largest at lower layer and ′ is the density of the upper layer:
the density boundary (pycnocline or thermocline) depth and de-
g   ′
creases downward as well as upward from this depth. When
wave heights are large, the crests of the internal waves may
C2  L
[ ]
2   ′
show at the sea surface as moving bands. The water over the When the internal waves are long relative to the water
crests of the internal waves often shows ripples. If the amplitude depth, it is necessary to include other relationships.
of the wave approaches the thickness of the surface layer,
246 Sverdrup−Armbrust: An
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Introduction to the World’s
10. The Waves Text © The McGraw−Hill
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Sea surface Sicily


Internal wave propagation direction


Strait of Messina
October 25, 1995


Figure 9.28 (a) Schematic illustration of an internal wave propagating along the base of the pycnocline (heavy solid line). The orbital motion of
water particles is indicated by dashed lines. (b) Satellite image (58 km x 90 km, 36 mi x 56 mi) of internal waves moving through the Strait of
Messina separating the island of Sicily from the Italian peninsula. (c) Color-coded density variations with depth (as measured by a CTD)
revealing the movement of internal waves in the Strait of Messina. The speed of the waves (m/s) is indicated by the arrows.
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

9.11 Standing Waves Notice that the single-node standing wave contains one-
half of a wave form (fig. 9 .29a). The crest is at one end of the
Deep-water waves, shallow-water waves, and internal waves are container, and the trough is at the other end. As the wave
all progressive waves; they have a speed and move in a direction. oscillates, a trough replaces the crest, and a crest replaces the
Standing waves do not progress; they are progressive waves re- trough. One wavelength, the distance from crest to crest or
flected back on themselves and appear as an alternation between from trough to trough, is twice the length of the container. By
a trough and a crest at a fixed position. They occur in ocean basins, rapidly tilting the basin back and forth at the correct rate,
partly enclosed bays and seas, and estuaries. A standing wave can one can produce a wave with more than one node (fig. 9.29b).
be demonstrated by slowly lifting one end of a container partially In the case of two nodes, there is a crest at either end of the
filled with water and then rapidly but gently returning it to a level container and a trough in the center; this configuration alter-
position. If this is done, the surface alternately rises at one end and nates with a trough at each end and the crest in the center. The
falls at the other end of the container. The surface oscillates about two nodes are one-quarter of the basin’s length from each end.
a point at the center of the container, the node; the alternations of In this case, note that the wavelength is equal to the basin’s
low and high water at each end are the antinodes (fig. 9.29a). A length. The oscillation period of the wave with two nodes is
standing wave is a progressive wave reflected back on itself; the one-half that of the wave with a single node.
reflection cancels out the forward motions of the initial and Standing waves in bays or inlets with an open end behave
reflected waves. If different-sized containers are treated the same somewhat differently than standing waves in closed basins.
way, the period of oscillation increases as the length of the con- A node is usually located at the entrance to the open-ended
tainer increases or its depth decreases. bay, so only one-quarter of the wavelength is inside the bay.

Figure 9.29a A standing wave

oscillating about a single node in a
basin. The time for one oscillation
is the period of the wave, T.

Figure 9.29b A standing wave

oscillating about two nodes. The
time for one oscillation is the period
of the wave.
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There is little or no rise and fall of the water surface at the an irregular bottom topography may create internal waves that
entrance, but a large rise and fall occurs at the closed end of sometimes produce seiches.
the bay (fig. 9.30). Multiple nodes may also be present in If the period of the disturbing force is a multiple of the nat-
open-ended basins. ural period of oscillation of the basin (an ocean basin or a
Standing waves that occur in natural basins are called smaller coastal basin), the height of the standing wave is greatly
seiches, and the oscillation of the surface is called seiching. In increased. For example, if a child is riding on a swing, a gen-
natural basins, the length dimension usually greatly exceeds the tle push timed with each swing period forces the swing higher
depth. Therefore, a standing wave of one node in such a basin and higher. The push may be delivered each time the swing
behaves as a reflecting shallow-water wave, with the wavelength passes, every other time, or every third time; all are multiples
determined by the length or width of the basin. In water with of the natural period of the swing. In chapter 10, we will learn
distinct layers having sharp density boundaries, standing waves that repeating tidal forces at the entrance to a bay can produce
may occur along the fluid boundaries as well as at the air-sea standing waves in those basins that have natural periods of os-
boundary. The oscillation of the internal standing waves is cillation approximating the tidal period. In the open ocean,
slower than the oscillation of the sea surface. large oceanic basins sometimes have natural periods of oscil-
Standing waves may be triggered by tectonic movements lation that promote standing wave tides (chapter 10).
that suddenly shake a basin, causing the water to oscillate at A standing wave in a basin is like a water pendulum. The
a period defined by the dimensions of the basin. This phenom- wave’s natural period of oscillation is
enon occurs during an earthquake when water sloshes back
and forth in swimming pools. If storm winds create a change
in surface level to produce storm surges, the surface may
( )( )
oscillate as a standing wave in the act of returning to its where n is the number of nodes present, D is the depth of wa-
normal level when the wind ceases. The movement of an air- ter in the basin, g is Earth’s acceleration due to gravity, and L
pressure disturbance over a lake may also cause periodic is the wavelength. L equals twice the basin length, l, in a closed
water-level changes, reaching a meter or more in height. Tidal basin and four times the basin length in a basin with an open
currents moving through an area with a sharp pycnocline and end. This equation is related to the shallow-water wave equation
when the number of nodes is equal to 1:
 n √gD
A progressive wave directly reflected back on itself pro-
duces a standing wave, because the two waves—original and
reflected—are moving at the same speed but in opposite direc-
tions. The checkerboard interference pattern produced by two
matched wave systems approaching each other at an angle also
creates standing waves, with crests and troughs alternating with
each other in fixed positions (see fig. 9.7).
Figure 9.31 shows the relationship between the distribution
of total oceanic wave energy and wave period. The energy of or-
dinary wind waves is high because these waves are always pres-
ent and well distributed through all the oceans. Storm waves are
larger and carry more energy, but they do not occur as frequently
Figure 9.30 A standing wave oscillates about the node located at and are present over much less of the ocean area. Therefore,
the opening to a basin. The antinodes produce the rise and fall of water storm waves have less total energy than ordinary wind waves.
at the closed end of the basin. This type of oscillation is produced by Tsunami-type waves contain a large amount of energy, but they
alternating water inflow and outflow at a period equal to the natural are infrequent and confined to fewer areas of the oceans. The
period of the basin. tides, when considered as waves, concentrate their energy in two

Figure 9.31 The distribution of Specific Wave Periods

wave energy with wave period.
Energy of Wave Types

12 24
1 sec 30 sec 5 min 20 min hr hr
Abundance and

waves Gravity waves
Common wind waves Tide waves
Storm Tsunami

0.1 1 10 102 103 104 105

Wave Period in Seconds
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

narrow bands centered on the twice-daily and once-daily tidal each other, causing pumps to move oil that passes through a tur-
periods. Tide wave forms are discussed in chapter 10. bine in a closed system.
In Western Australia, the Azores, and Japan, other systems
using wave energy to compress air are being developed
9.12 Practical Considerations: (fig. 9.33). Air traps can be installed along a wave-exposed
Energy from Waves
A tremendous amount of energy exists in ocean waves. The
power of all waves is estimated at 2.7  1012 watts, which is
about equal to 3000 times the power-generating capacity of
Hoover Dam. Unfortunately for human needs, this energy is
widely dispersed and not constant at any given location or time.
It is, therefore, difficult to tap this supply to produce power,
except in small quantities.
Wave energy can be harnessed in three basic ways:
(1) using the changing level of the water to lift an object,
which can then do useful work because of its potential energy;
(2) using the orbital motion of the water particles or the
changing tilt of the sea surface to rock an object to and fro;
and (3) using rising water to compress air or water in a cham-
ber. A combination of these may also be used. If the wave mo-
tion is used directly or indirectly to turn a generator, electrical
energy may be produced.
Consider a large surface float with a hollow cylinder extend-
ing down into the sea (fig. 9 .32). Inside the cylinder is a pis-
ton, and the up-and-down motion of the surface float causes the
cylinder to move up and down over the piston, while the large
drag plate restricts the motion of the piston. The system takes in
water as the surface buoy rises on the crest of the waves and
squirts water out as the surface buoy drops with the passing of
the trough. The pumped water can be used to turn a turbine, but
because wave energy is distributed over a volume of water, this
mechanism does not withdraw much of the passing wave’s en- Figure 9.32 The vertical rise and fall of the waves can be used to
ergy. This system can be adapted to pump air rather than water. power a pump.
An air-compression system called Sperboy has
been developed and tested in Great Britain. Air dis-
placed by the oscillating water column is passed
through turbine generators to produce energy. Sper-
boy is designed to be deployed in large arrays 8 to
12 miles offshore providing large-scale energy gen-
eration at a competitive cost.
Another system constructs a tapered channel per-
pendicular to the shore. Incoming waves force the wa-
ter up 2–3 m (6–10 ft) in the narrow end of the channel,
where it spills into an elevated storage tank, then down
through a turbine. This system is used to generate power
by a 75-kilowatt plant on Scotland’s Isle of Islay, a
350-kilowatt plant at Toftestalen, Norway, and two
1500-kilowatt plants, one in Java and the other in
Australia. Both the surface float and the tapered chan-
nel are examples of changing the level of an object or
the water itself to create potential energy.
Wave power systems that use the orbital or rock-
ing motion of the waves are under study in Great
Britain. Long strings of mechanical power units are Figure 9.33 Each rise and fall of the waves pumps pulses of compressed air into a
moored in water where waves are abundant. Each storage tank. A smooth flow of compressed air from the storage tank turns a turbine
passing wave makes the power units move relative to that generates electricity.
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Oceans, Tenth Edition

coast so that the crest of a wave moving into the trap compresses California utility, has considered installing a generating device in
air, forcing it through a one-way valve; the air traps can also be a breakwater planned for Fort Bragg, California.
constructed to pass air in either direction. This compressed air When we think about wave energy systems, thoughtful
powers a turbine. The trough of the wave allows more air to consideration needs to be given to items other than cost. If all
enter the trap, readying it for compression by the following the energy were extracted from the waves in a coastal area,
wave crest. what effect would this action have on the shore area? If
Shores that are continually pounded by large-amplitude the nearshore areas are covered with wave energy absorbers
waves are most likely to be developed for wave power. Great 5–10 m (15–33 ft) apart, what will the effect be on other ocean
Britain has a coastline with frequent high-energy waves and an uses? Since the individual units collect energy at a slow rate,
average wave power of about 5.5  104 watts (or 55 kilowatts) can they collect enough energy over their projected life span
per meter of coastline. If the wave energy could be completely to exceed the energy used to fabricate and maintain them?
harnessed along 1000 km (620 mi) of coast, it would generate Answers to these questions will help us understand that the
enough power to supply 50% of Great Britain’s present power harvesting of wave energy is not without an effect on the
needs. Along the northern California coast, waves are estimated environment, that it may not be either cost- or energy-
to expend 23  106 kilowatts of power annually; it is thought that effective, and that its location may present enormous prob-
4.6  106 kilowatts, or 20%, could be harvested to generate elec- lems for installation, maintenance, and transport of energy to
trical power. The Pacific Gas & Electric Company, a northern sites of energy use.

When the water’s surface is disturbed, a wave is formed by the When the ratio of the height to the length of a wave, or its steep-
interaction between generating and restoring forces. The wind ness, exceeds 1:7, the wave breaks. The Universal Sea State
produces capillary waves, which grow to form gravity waves. Code relates wind speeds and sea-surface conditions.
The elevated portion of a wave is the crest; the depressed por- Shallow-water waves occur when the depth is less than one-
tion is the trough. The wavelength is the distance between two twentieth the wavelength. The speed of a shallow-water wave de-
successive crests or troughs. The wave height is the distance be- pends on the depth of the water. As the wave moves toward shore
tween the crest and the trough. Wave period measures the time and decreasing depth, it slows, shortens, and increases in height.
required for two successive crests or troughs to pass a location. Waves coming into shore are refracted, reflected, and diffracted.
The moving wave form causes water particles to move in orbits. The patterns produced by these processes helped people in an-
The wave’s speed is related to wavelength and period. cient times to navigate from island to island.
Deep-water waves occur in water deeper than one-half the In the surf zone, breaking waves produce a water movement
wavelength. Wind waves generated in storm centers are deep- toward the shore. Breaking waves are classified as plungers or
water waves. The period of a wave is a function of its generat- spillers. Water moves along the beach as well as toward it; it is
ing force and does not change. Long-period waves move out returned seaward through the surf zone by rip currents.
from the storm center, forming long, regular waves, or swell. The Tsunamis are seismic sea waves. They behave as shallow-
faster waves move through the slower waves and form groups, water waves, producing severe coastal destruction and flooding.
or trains, of waves. The longer waves are followed by the shorter Internal waves occur between water layers of different
waves. This process is known as sorting, or dispersion. The densities. Standing waves, or seiches, occur in basins as the sea
speed of a group of waves is half the speed of the individual surface oscillates about a node. Alternate troughs and crests
waves in deep water. Swells from different storms cross, cancel, occur at the antinodes.
and combine with each other as they move across the ocean. The energy of the waves can be harnessed by using either
Wave height depends on wind speed, wind duration, and the water-level changes or the changing surface angle associated
fetch. Single large waves unrelated to local conditions are called with them. Difficulties include cost, location, environmental
episodic waves. The energy of a wave is related to its height. effects, and lack of wave regularity.

Key Terms
generating force cat’s-paws amplitude
restoring force crest equilibrium surface
gravity wave trough wave period
ripple wavelength orbit
capillary wave wave height deep-water wave
Sverdrup−Armbrust: An 10. The Waves Text
Aquatic Science
Introduction to the World’s Companies, 2009
Oceans, Tenth Edition

progressive wind wave group speed wave ray tsunami

storm center fetch diffraction internal wave
forced wave episodic wave breaker standing wave
free wave potential energy plunger node
sorting/dispersion kinetic energy spiller antinode
wave train wave steepness rip current seiche
swell shallow-water wave seismic sea wave

Study Questions
1. A surfboard slides downward on the face of a wave. The steepness 7. What happens to a deep-water progressive wave when it moves
of the wave face is governed by the decrease of L (wavelength) into shallow water and up a sloping beach?
and the increase of H (wave height) as the wave slows in shallow 8. Compare a tsunami and a storm surge. How are they the same?
water. How must the surfer adjust the board in order to stay on the How are they different?
face of the wave as the wave approaches shallow water? 9. Distinguish among (a) sea and swell, (b) wave height and wave
2. Locate a small pond or pool and drop a stone into it. Describe what steepness, (c) wave height and wave amplitude, (d) plunger and
happens (1) to an individual wave and (2) to the group of waves. spiller, and (e) node and antinode.
Try to determine the group speed and the individual wave speed. 10. What is the effect of sorting (dispersion) on waves moving
3. Drop two stones into the pond at a short distance from each away from a storm center?
other. Describe what happens when the wave rings produced 11. How do refraction, reflection, and diffraction affect a wave?
by the two stones pass through each other. Do the heights of 12. How is a standing wave related to a progressive wave?
the waves change when they intersect? Do the wave trains pass 13. Explain two ways in which wave energy could be harnessed to
through each other and continue on? provide useful power. What are the advantages and disadvan-
4. List the forces that act on a smooth-water surface to create tages of each method?
deep-water wind waves. 14. If a group of mixed waves is generated in a sudden storm, why
5. If you were sailing at night in the trade-wind belt, how could does it take more time for the group to pass an island far from
you use the waves to keep you on a course of constant direction? the storm center than to pass an island near it?
6. Make a sketch of an ideal progressive wind wave in deep wa- 15. A depression in the sea floor at right angles to a straight coast-
ter. Label the parts. line may be the site of a rip current. Why?

Study Problems
1. Using the equations C  L/T and L  (g/2)T 2, show that 4. Explain wave dispersion. How far from a storm center will
wave speed can be determined from (a) wave period only and waves with periods of twelve seconds, nine seconds, and six
(b) wavelength only. seconds have traveled after twelve hours? If the six-second
2. What is the period of a wave moving in deep water at 10 m/s, waves arrive at your beach ten hours after the twelve-second
if its wavelength is 64 m? When it enters shallow water, what waves, how far away is the storm?
will happen to the wave’s speed, length, period, and height? 5. Fill a rectangular aquarium or dishpan approximately one-third
How high will the wave have to be to break in deep water? full of water. Measure the water depth (D). Carefully lift one
3. A submarine earthquake produces a tsunami in the Gulf of end of the container and set it down rapidly and smoothly.
Alaska. How long will it take the tsunami to reach Hawaii if Time the period between successive high waters at one end
the average depth of the ocean over which the waves travel is (T); this is the wave period. The wavelength (L) is twice the
3.8 km and the distance is 4600 km? length of the container. Show that C (the wave speed) deter-
mined from L/T is equal to C determined from n √gD.