Phenomena

How Are Sea Waves Created?

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There are many different kinds of sea waves, some of which have fluid dynamical origins and some of which don’t. For example, tsunamis are caused by the sudden displacement of the ocean floor caused by earthquakes and the tides are caused by the pull of the moon on Earth’s oceans. But many of the waves we are accustomed to seeing are caused by the wind moving across open water, whether in the ocean, in a lake or a sea, or even a river or pond. When the wind blows across the free surface of the water, the difference in velocity between the two fluids causes shearing and the development of surface waves as a result of the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability. (Incidentally, this is why other examples of the K-H instability look so much like ocean waves.)

These wind-generated waves can take several forms. Ripples–or capillary waves–remain visible only as long as the wind is blowing. But under steady conditions, or after the wind has affected a large enough area, waves can form that will persist at the surface even if the wind stops blowing. At that point, even though the wind generated the waves, it is gravity that allows them to persist. This is the source of most of the waves we see on large bodies of water. (Photo credit: Travis Weins)

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