Atlantic Ocean Morning Waves - Smith Point, New York  by © Sophie W. Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Wind speedDistance of open water that the wind has blown over (called the fetch)Width of area affected by fetchTime duration the wind has blown over a given areaWater depth

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

Wave height (from trough to crest)Wavelength (from crest to crest)Wave period (time interval between arrival of consecutive crests at a stationary point)Wave propagation direction

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

Three different types of wind waves develop over time:

Capillary waves, or ripplesSeasSwells

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

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

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


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