Reader Matt G asks:
[What’s] going on here?
Why’s the pattern square? Just a special case of waves traveling in different directions, and this photo happened to catch some at right angles to one another?
You’re not far off, Matt! This is an example of cross sea, where wave trains moving in different directions meet. Like most ocean waves, these waves originated from wind moving over the water. As the wind blows, it transfers energy to the water, disturbing what would otherwise be a smooth surface and setting up a series of waves. Oftentimes, these waves can outlast the wind that generates them and travel over long distances of open water as a swell.
Cross seas occur when two of these wave systems collide at oblique angles. They’re most obvious in shallow waters like those seen here, where the depth makes their criss-cross pattern clearer. Another name for them is square waves, and although the pattern isn’t a perfect square, it’s usually fairly close. If the waves aren’t separated by a large angle, they’re more likely to merge than to create this sort of pattern.
Neat as cross seas look, they’re quite dangerous, both to ships and swimmers. Ships are built to tackle waves head-on and don’t fare well when they’re forced to take waves from the side. For swimmers, the danger is a little different. Cross seas create intense vorticity under the surface and can generate stronger than usual riptides that sweep the unwary out to sea. (Image credit: M. Griffon)