facts about ocean waves
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Facts About Ocean Waves

Even though the average person might think that most waves are pretty much the same, there is a wide variety of waves and types of waves that roam across the ocean.

ocean waves

Have you ever been spellbound by waves? The splendor and prowess that a single wave has within can move mountains. However you choose to perceive this force of nature, there is no denying that it’s a majestic sight to behold. 

If you want to be strictly scientific, then you can refer to waves as entities that transfer and transmit energy. The interesting thing is that the wave phenomenon is far more prevalent in our daily lives than we might think. There are a plethora of different types of waves. They can be grouped in different categories in regards to direction, size, longitude, surface, mechanics, electromagnetics, and so on. 

Even though there is always something more than meets the eye when it comes to waves and their behavior, they also have a lot in common. Waves singlehandedly make it possible for us to listen to music and prepare food. And if you’re really into it, you can even ride them. 

Most of the time, waves are a thing of beauty, but they can be terrifying as well. In this article, we are going to take a closer look at some interesting facts and food for thought when it comes to waves. We’re pretty sure that most of these will come as news to you. Let’s dive deep. 

Giant Waves

Some time during the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed that everybody was hell-bent on riding the biggest wave in existence. The highest surfed wave and the highest recorded wave aren’t worlds apart. Well, depending on who you ask. 

The tallest wave recorded in human history is the 1,720 feet juggernaut triggered by an earthquake at Lituya Bay in 1958. When the wave struck, it caught a fishing boat with two passengers and lifted them up to new heights. Fortunately, both of them survived and can claim that they have surfed the biggest wave in existence. See, sometimes things pan out for you even when you don’t put the time in.

Wave Structure 

Ocean waves are measured by different parameters. What you will mostly find are measurements for the length of the wave, its height, the time it took to rise and fall, and the speeds it was going at. 

Interestingly, when a wave is breaking, it is actually about 1.3 times deeper than its apex point. 

Some of the biggest waves have been known to reach unprecedented numbers in the depth department. The average ocean wave depth is about 13,200 feet or 4,000 meters, while the speed clocks in at over 440 miles or 700 kilometers per hour. To put this into perspective, most waves are quicker than aircraft. 

That being said, not all breaking waves are created equal. There are different distinctions when it comes to breaking waves. They can be plunging waves, collapsing waves, spilling waves, surging waves, etc. But more on the types of waves a bit later.

The Impact of the Hemispheres

The wave break occurs when a wave hits shallower terrains. Here, the ground stops the movement of a part of the wave, and the bottom part of it becomes slower than its counterpart. Once the bottom part extends to about 1.3 times the wave’s height, the liquid monster starts to break. 

As luck would have it, the planet's axis and the earth’s hemispheres have a lot to do with how waves come about, develop, and eventually disperse. The Northern Hemisphere is much more temperamental than the Southern Hemisphere. 

Although we are sure that most surfers would rather take to the beach on sunny evenings than in the dead of winter, the Northern Hemisphere is known for producing bigger and longer waves during the colder months of the year. 

Wave Movement

You have probably come across a seiche wave by now. A seiche is a stationary wave that sways from side to side in a closed or controlled body of water—think pools, lakes, and harbors.  

The movement of the wave is closely tied with the nature of its current and the energy that it transfers. This is why standing waves are much less dangerous than open ocean waves. Because the standing waves can occupy limited space, they are a lot more predictable. 

The depths of the water also play a big part in how the objects in it behave when faced with commotion. Deep waters make floating objects spin in orbits, while shallow waters move objects slightly forward. You know this if you’ve ever been to the beach and have stayed close to the shore.

The Southern Hemisphere is much more consistent in its wave production because there is a lot less to account for when it comes to the discrepancy between the winters and the summers. The more you can predict things in the surfing world, the better off you will be. 

Wave Conversion

Perhaps the most prevalent use of waves today is their conversion into electricity. This is by no means a new idea. In fact, it has been prevalent since the late 1790s. 

You are probably asking yourself where waves come from and what prompts their creation. Well, one thing is for sure: the ocean never sleeps. 

Regardless of where you are and what your entry point is, you can easily see that the ocean is constantly in flux. There is energy changing direction and hands continuously and without respite. In simple terms, the waves are created as a result of the energy that is moving through the ocean. 

Because the water itself does not travel in waves, but in currents, if there are no forks in the road, a current can travel across the planet before it eventually disperses into smaller currents of energy. 

Well, that’s all well and good, but those currents have started somewhere, right? Well, the most common phenomenon responsible for the creation of waves and currents is the wind.

The waves that are prompted by winds come into existence as a result of the friction that takes solace between the direction and speed of the wind and the surface of the body of water. 

The same process is prevalent in both lakes and oceans.

Anywhere the Wind Blows

It all comes down to the angle at which the wind is blowing and how it collides with the sea levels. The gravitational pull that takes hold of the bottom part of the wind (the part that is in friction with the surface) slows it down compared to the upper part that moves through air unobstructed, thus creating a discrepancy in speed and pull between the two.

This makes for a circular motion that brings about a lot of pressure between the top and the bottom of the wind motion. The pressure at the bottom is so big that it starts lifting the water toward the less pressured airspace and forms a wave

Types of Waves

Ocean waves are distinguished by the ways that they come into existence, behave, and form. 

Tidal Waves

Of course, you are probably aware of the monstrous waves that come to life because of dangerous natural catastrophes such as hurricanes and heavy storms. 

In these cases, the wind is not the only factor that prompts the waves into existence. The atmospheric pressure translates into: the more time and space the wave has to develop, the more dangerous it becomes. 

A lot of the ebb and flow of the ocean is dictated by the pull of the sun and the moon. The tides that the sun and moon create can easily prompt tidal waves that, combined with other factors, can bloom into full-fledged big waves. 

Like any other wave, if given the time and space to fully develop, tidal waves can grow into dangerous blocks of water that resemble tsunami waves. 

Lastly, we must not discount underwater tribulations such as earthquakes, avalanches, or volcanoes. These factors are known to cause giant surges of what we refer to as tsunamis. 

The thing about tsunamis is that they have a clear path to develop into otherworldly walls of liquid that are a completely different animal than even the biggest of the surfable waves. 

Wind Waves and Surface Waves

ocean wave facts 

Surface waves are the first thing that we think of when imagining waves.

They are usually a set of waves that have a lot in common. Most of them will be very similar in the ways that they rise, move, and come undone. 

Even though surface waves can get pretty tall and bf because of the wind, for the most part they are a lot of fun to be around. 

Although there are a lot of contributing factors when it comes to wave creation, surface waves are mostly a result of the friction between the wind and the surface of the ocean. 

Breaking Waves

The most common type of waves that you are likely to encounter is breaking waves. Waves start to break when their angle reaches a point of 1:7. This means that the tip of the wave, or the crest, is moving at a distance that is seven times greater than the slower moving base of the wave. 

The gravitational pull on the top of the wave is too big for the water itself and the speed at which it is traveling to sustain it, so the top of the wave is pulled down toward the floor of the ocean.  

Spilling Waves

Spilling waves are waves that gradually disperse into the ocean. These waves are caused by the ocean floor. Basically, the base of the wave hits the rising ground surface and rolls over itself into smaller waves. 

Beginner surfers will find it a lot easier to work on their technique and moves while riding spilling waves because of the fact that they break gradually and over an extensive period of time. 

Plunging Waves

When the floor of the ocean is pretty uneven, it takes time to dismantle the energy that drives the wave underneath the surface. Parts of the moving current get trapped in pockets or holes, which makes the movement and distribution of energy pretty uneven throughout. 

Once a plunging wave reaches the shore, it basically explodes in all directions. Plunging waves can also be caused by offshore winds that change direction. This type of wave is pretty dangerous because it cannot be anticipated. All of them are different and very chaotic by nature. 

Surging Waves

Surging waves are steep forces of nature that are brought to life by big swells that pull back at a steep angle. They resemble a curve because they have no crest to them. They are just a big fast lump traveling through the ocean. 

Even though they might seem pretty harmless, they do deliver a strong backwash that can pull the surfer at a moment's notice and set them right into the next upcoming wave. 

Collapsing Waves

Collapsing waves are balls of chaos that are made up when a plunging wave and a surging wave meet. The top of the wave doesn’t break throughout, and the bottom shifts from a horizontal line to more of a vertical one. It’s the equivalent of a water tumbleweed.

This isn’t a good scenario if you happen to be stuck on one and have to make contortionist-worthy movements in order to escape the inevitable. 

Surfers that are starting out are better off bypassing collapsing waves until they develop a better sense of navigation and muscle memory that will see them through to shore. 

Deep Water Waves

Deep water waves are waves that begin to form below the surface of the water and pick up great currents because they can travel long distances without being interrupted by large obstacles. 

They usually come into being at spots where the depth of the ocean is more than twice the height of the wave. Deep water waves usually travel in groups because they don’t rely on surface forces for their formation. This makes it easier for them to replicate when the conditions are right. So, if you are diving and you feel a sudden pull, you should probably expect a number of those in a short period of time. 

In most cases, they have a lot of length to them and pack enough punch to travel great distances in a straight line.

Shallow Water Waves

Shallow waves are formed when the bottom of the ocean is close to sea level. This means that the waves originate at shallow depths and typically don’t have much time to develop. This, however, does not mean that they can’t pick up speed and cause devastating damage in their own right. 

There are many different factors that can contribute to the formation of shallow waves. Some of the most prominent ones are the gravitational pull and underwater landslides. 

Inshore Waves

Inshore waves are waves in which the length of the wave is shorter than the depth of the wave. 

So, in essence, they are very tall waves that don’t go too wide over the surface. 

Internal Waves

Internal waves are formations of water currents that happen underwater and are made up of different layers. For the most part, they go completely unnoticed by the people who aren’t in the water when they occur. Sometimes, they aren't even registered altogether. 

When an ocean layer is disturbed at any level, that layer moves as its own entity. Think of it as multiple layers of cake, each similar in shape but different in structure. 

Kelvin Waves

Kelvin waves take the form of large waves that come to fruition due to irregular wind flow. This phenomenon is largely prevalent in the Pacific Ocean. Kelvin waves are an interesting phenomenon because they get trapped by the planet’s rotation at the equator. They can be both coastal and equatorial. 

A Few Words Before You Go…

We are well aware that surface waves are the main ocean waves that surfers encounter, preferably in warm water and in spots that can deliver the perfect breaking waves. However, the reality of it is that those perfect moments are few and far between. 

The reality is that you will never be met with the perfect circumstances. Well, never say never, because there are literally an infinite number of records of how a wave can come into existence and come apart. 

However, instead of hunting for the perfect wave, focus on how waves break so that you can make the most out of your situation. 

How a wave breaks has everything to do with how the wave slows down, where the wave passes, the cold or warm surface water, the underwater ocean currents, how deep those ocean currents go, its wave energy potential, etc. 

The location makes for completely different circumstances. The South Atlantic Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean aren’t the same beast, even though they might look alike. Pay attention to the deep ocean currents and the wind speed. 

The more you know about waves and their behavior, the safer you will be and the more enjoyable the surf.  

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching