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Wave Characteristics

Chapter 1.
Wave Characteristics
1.1 Definition of waves
In physics, a wave is an oscillation accompanied by a transfer of energy that travels
through medium (space or mass). Yet, ocean waves is a ridge or swell on the surface of a body of
water, normally having a forward motion distinct from the oscillatory motion of the particles that
successively compose it. Ocean waves come in many shapes and sizes. They range in length
from a fraction of a centimeter for the smallest ripples to half the circumference of Earth for the
tides. They are formed by gravitation, wind, earthquakes, and submarine landslides disturbing
the water surface. Once formed, and regardless of origin, ocean waves can travel great distances
before reaching the coast.
The undulations and oscillations may be chaotic and random, or they may be regular,
with an identifiable wavelength between adjacent crests and with a definite frequency of
oscillation. In the latter case the waves may be progressive, in which the crests and troughs
appear to travel at a steady speed in a direction at right angles to themselves. Alternatively, they
may be standing waves, in which there is no progression. In this case, there is no rise and fall at
all in some places, the nodes, while elsewhere the surface rises to a crest and then falls to a
trough at a regular frequency.
Wind waves are mechanical waves that propagate. Along the interface between water and
air; the restoring force is provided by gravity, and so they are often referred to as surface gravity
waves. As the wind blows, pressure and friction perturb the equilibrium of the water surface and
transfer energy from the air to the water, forming waves.
When studying waves, it is important to note that while it appears the water is moving
forward, only a small amount of water is actually moving. Instead, it is the waves energy that is
moving and since water is a flexible medium for energy transfer, it looks like the water itself is
moving.
In the open ocean, the friction moving the waves generates energy within the water. This
energy is then passed between water molecules in ripples called waves of transition. When the
water molecules receive the energy, they move forward slightly and form a circular pattern.
Waves can vary in size and strength based on wind speed and friction on the water's
surface or outside factors such as boats. The small wave trains created by a boats movement on
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the water are called wake. By contrast, high winds and storms can generate large groups of wave
trains with enormous energy.
In addition, undersea earthquakes or other sharp motions in the seafloor can sometimes
generate enormous waves, called tsunamis (inappropriately known as tidal waves) that can
devastate entire coastlines.
Finally, regular patterns of smooth, rounded waves in the open ocean are called swells.
Swells are defined as mature undulations of water in the open ocean after wave energy has left
the wave generating region. Like other waves, swells can range in size from small ripples to
large, flat-crested waves.

1.2 Wave Classification


Three types of water waves may be distinguished: wind waves and swell, wind surges,
and sea waves of seismic origin (tsunamis). In addition, standing waves, or seiches, can occur in
water bodies with enclosed or nearly enclosed basins, and internal waves, which appear as
undulating layers of rapidly changing density with increasing depth, take place away from the
waters surface.
1.2.1 Wind waves and swell
Wind waves are the wind-generated gravity waves. After the wind has abated or shifted
or the waves have migrated away from the wind field, such waves continue to propagate as
swell.
Three different types of wind waves develop over time: capillary wave or ripples, seas,
swells.
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. Sea waves are largerscale, 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

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Wave Characteristics

gravity. As waves 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.
The dependence of the sizes of the waves on the wind field is a complicated one. A
general impression of this dependence is given by the descriptions of the various states of the sea
corresponding to the scale of wind strengths known as the Beaufort scale (Figure 1.1), named
after the British admiral Sir Francis Beaufort. He drafted it in 1808 using as his yardstick the
surface of sail that a fully rigged warship of those days could carry in the various wind forces.

Figure 1.1 Correlation between Beaufort scale and wave height in meters.
When considering the descriptions of the sea surface, it must be remembered that the size
of the waves depends not only on the strength of the wind but also on its duration and its fetch,
the length of its path over the sea (Figure 1.2).

Figure 1.2 Fetch

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The height of wind waves increases with increasing wind speed and with increasing
duration and fetch of the wind (i.e., the distance over which the wind blows). Together with
height, the dominant wavelength also increases (Figure 1.3).

Figure 1.3 Classification of waves by their wavelength


Finally, however, the waves reach a state of saturation because they attain the maximum
significant height to which the wind can raise them, even if duration and fetch are unlimited. For
instance, winds of 5 meters per second may raise waves with significant heights up to 0.5 meter.
Such a wave would have a corresponding wavelength of 16 meters (53 feet). Stronger winds
blowing at 15 to 25 meters per second produce waves with heights of 4.5 to 12.5 meters and
wavelengths that stretch from 140 to 400 meters.

Figure 1.4 How swell occurs

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After becoming swell, the waves may travel thousands of kilometers over the ocean. This
is particularly the case if the swell is from the large storms of moderate and high latitudes,
whence it easily may travel into the subtropical and equatorial zones, and the swell of the trade
winds, which runs into the equatorial calms. In traveling, the swell waves gradually become
lower; energy is lost by internal friction and air resistance and by energy dissipation because of
some divergence of the directions of propagation (fanning out). With respect to the energy loss,
there is a selective damping of the composite waves, the shorter waves of the wave mixture
suffering a stronger damping over a given distance than the longer ones. As a consequence, the
dominant wavelength of the spectrum shifts toward the greater wavelengths. Therefore, an old
swell must always be a long swell.
The dissipation of waves with periods larger than 13 s is very weak but still significant at
the scale of the Pacific Ocean. These long swells lose half of their energy over a distance that
varies from over 20000 km (half the distance round the globe) to just over 2000 km. This
variation was found to be a systematic function of the swell steepness: the ratio of the swell
height to the wavelength. The reason for this behavior is still unclear but it is possible that this
dissipation is due to the friction at the air-sea interface.
Waves and swell look subtly different. Swell marches in longer lines and appears less
steep and more stretched than waves its wavelength does actually grow slowly as it grows
older. The two also behave differently as swell will not normally break in open water, whereas
waves will. Swell continues to move under winds and waves that have long since changed
direction, it can even head in the opposite direction as the wind and waves. Swell can cross an
ocean of a thousand miles.

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Figure 1.5 Ocean Swell

1.2.2 Waves of seismic origin


A tsunami is a very long wave with seismic origins. It is caused by a submarine or costal
earthquake, volcanic eruption, or even a landslide. It may have a length of hundreds of
kilometers and the period of a quarter of hour. Tsunamis are waves traveling at a tremendous
speed. To a depth of 4,000 meters , for instance, the corresponding wave speed is about 200
meters per second, or 720 km per hour.(wave speed given by C2 = gd).
As they approach a continental shelf, however, their speed is reduced and their height
increases dramatically. Tsunamis have caused enormous destruction of life and property, piling
up in coastal waters at places thousands of kilometers away from their point of origin.

Figure 1.6 Tsunami propagation

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1.2.3 Standing waves or seiches


A freestanding wave may arise in an enclosed or nearly enclosed basin as a free swinging
or sloshing of the whole water mass. A standing wave is also called a seiche, after the name
given to the oscillating movements of the water of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where this
phenomenon first was studied rigorously. Seiches are typically caused when strong winds and
rapid changes in atmospheric pressure push water from one end of a body of water to the other.
When the wind stops, the water rebounds to the other side of the enclosed area. The water then
continues to oscillate back and forth for hours or even days. (Figure 1.7)
As the seas build under a storm, the speed of individual wind waves start accelerating as
they combine and merge. The higher the wind velocity and larger the area and longer the time the
wind blows, the greater the opportunity wind waves have to combine and grow. Within the
storm, waves of many different energy levels are created. Eventually either the storm dies or the
wave speed exceeds the forward speed of the storm, and these seas 'escape' into relatively calm
waters. But these windwaves are rough, ragged and cover a wide energy spectra. Each individual
wave is a mass of chop, bump and unruly un-groomed energy. But these waves have inertia and
they're moving forward
Seiches are often imperceptible to the naked eye, and observers in boats on the surface
may not notice that a seiche is occurring due to the extremely long wavelengths. The effect is
caused by resonances in a body of water that has been disturbed by one or more of a number of
factors, most often meteorological effects (wind and atmospheric pressure variations), seismic
activity or by tsunamis. Earthquakes, tsunamis, or severe storm fronts may also cause seiches
along ocean shelves and ocean harbors.
The period of oscillation is independent of the force that first brought the water mass out
of equilibrium (and that is supposed to have ceased thereafter); it depends only on the
dimensions of the enclosing basin and on the direction in which the water mass is swinging. The
water in an open bay or marginal sea also may perform such a free oscillation as a standing
wave, the difference being that in an open bay the greatest horizontal displacements are not in the
middle of the bay but at the mouth.

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Figure 1.7 How seiche occurs


Seiches have been observed on both lakes and seas. The key requirement is that the body
of water be partially constrained to allow formation of standing waves. Regularity of geometry is
not required; even harbours with exceedingly irregular shapes are routinely observed to oscillate
with very stable frequencies.
More famous are seas such as the Adriatic Sea and the Baltic Sea where there have been
observed seiches. This results in the flooding of Venice and St. Petersburg, respectively, as both
cities are constructed on former marshland. Also Nagasaki Bay is a typical area in Japan where
seiches have been observed from time to time, most often in the spring, especially in March.

1.2.4 Tides
Tides are actually waves, the biggest waves on the planet, and they cause the sea to rise
and fall along the shore around the world. Tides exist thanks to the gravitational pull of the moon
and the sun, but vary depending on where the moon and sun are in relation to the ocean as the
earth rotates on its axis. The moon and suns pull cause two bulges or high tides in the ocean on
opposite sides of the earth. The moon, being so much closer, has more power to pull the tides
than the sun and therefore is the primary force creating the tides. However, when the sun and
moon reinforce each others gravitational pulls, they create larger-than-normal tides called spring
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tides. The opposite of thiswhen the gravitational forces of the sun and moon pull from
opposite sides of the earth and cancel each other outis called a neap tide and results in a
smaller-than-usual tidal range.
Tidal movements are tracked using networks of shore-based water level gauges, and
many countries provide real-time information with tidal listings and tidal charts. Tides can be
tracked for specific locations in order to predict the height of a tide and when low and high tide
will occur in the future. The Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada has the highest tidal range of
any place on the planet. The tides there range from 3.5m to 16m and cause erosion, creating
massive cliffs. This erosion also releases nutrients into the water that help support marine life.
Currents associated with the tides are called flood currents (incoming tide) and ebb currents
(outgoing tide).

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Figure 1.8 Effects of low tide on harbor of Gorey, Jersey

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Having reliable knowledge about the tides is important for navigating ships safely, and
for engineering projects such as tidal and wave energy, as well as for planning trips to the
seashore.

1.3 Main characteristics of wind waves and swell


There are some factors that work together to determine the size of wind waves and the
structures of the flows within. The most basic wave terminology refers to the top of the wave,
which is the crest. The trough is the hollow between two crests. One of the other factors is wave
height, from high trough to crest, or the vertical distance between the top of one wave crest and
the bottom of the next trough. (Figure 1.9, Figure 1.10)

Figure 1.9 The phases of an ocean surface wave

Another one is the wavelength (from crest to crest) or the horizontal distance between
any one point on one wave and the corresponding point on the next. (Figure 1.10)

Figure 1.10 Wave characteristics


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Also the amplitude is the maximum vertical displacement of the sea surface from still
water level (half the wave height). A waves amplitude is the maximum displacement of the
surface above or below its resting position. The mathematical theory of water wave propagation
shows that for waves whose amplitude is small compared to their length, the wave profile can be
sinusoidal (that is, shaped like a sine wave), and there is a definite relationship between the
wavelength and the wave period, which also controls the speed of wave propagation.
Waves whose amplitude is large compared with their length cannot be so readily
described by mathematical theory, and their form is distorted from a sinusoidal shape. The
troughs tend to flatten and the crests sharpen toward a point, a shape known as a conoidal wave.
In deeper water the limiting height of a wave is one-seventh of its length.
The energy of the waves is proportional to the square of the amplitude. Mathematical
analysis shows that a distinction must be made between the speed of the troughs and crests,
called the phase speed, and the speed and direction of the transport of energy or information
associated with the wave, termed the group velocity. For nondispersive long waves the two are
equal, whereas for surface gravity waves in deep water the group velocity is only half the phase
speed. Thus, in a train of waves spreading out over a pond after a sudden disturbance at a point,
the wave front travels at only half the speed of the crests, which appear to run through the packet
of waves and disappear at the front. For capillary waves the group velocity is one and one-half
times the phase speed.
The period is the time it takes for one complete wavelength to pass a stationary point.
Wave period is the time interval between arrival of consecutive crests at a stationary point and
the least but not the last is wave propagation direction. (Figure 1.11)
Last but not least, the wave speed is the velocity with which waves travel.
In another order of ideas the theory of waves starts with the concept of simple waves,
those forming a strictly periodic pattern with one wavelength and one wave period and
propagating in one direction. Real waves, however, always have a more irregular appearance.
They may be described as composite waves, in which a whole spectrum of wavelengths, or
periods, is present and which have more or less diverging directions of propagation. In reporting
observed wave heights and periods (or lengths) or in forecasting them, one height or one period
is mentioned as the height or period, however, and some agreement is needed in order to
guarantee uniformity of meaning. The height of simple waves means the elevation difference

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between the top of a crest and the bottom of a trough. The significant height, a characteristic
height of irregular waves, is by convention the average of the highest one-third of the observed
wave heights.
Period, or wavelength, can be determined from the average of a number of observed time
intervals between the passing of successive well-developed wave crests over a certain point, or
of observed distances between them. (Figure 1.11)
Wave period and wavelength are coupled by a simple relationship: wavelength equals
wave period times wave speed, or L = TC, when L is wavelength, T is wave period, and C is
wave speed.

Figure 1.11 Classification of the spectrum of ocean waves according to wave period.
The wave speed of surface gravity waves depends on the depth of water and on the
wavelength, or period; the speed increases with increasing depth and increasing wavelength, or
period. If the water is sufficiently deep, the wave speed is independent of water depth. This is the
relationship of wave speed to wavelength and water depth (d). In other words another set of
characteristics describes the deepness. The deep water waves that are in water that is deeper than
half their wavelength. Also, the shallow water waves relates to waves that are in water that is
shallower than 1/20 their wavelength. The important difference on these last two is whether or
not the sea floor influences the motion of the wave.
With g being the gravity acceleration (9.8 meters per second squared), C2 = gd when the
wavelength is 20 times greater than the water depth (waves of this kind are called long gravity
waves or shallow-water waves), and C2 = gL/2 when the wavelength is less than two times the
water depth (such waves are called short waves or deepwater waves). For waves with lengths
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between 2 and 20 times the water depth, the wave speed is governed by a more-complicated
equation combining other effects (Figure 1.12).

Figure 1.12 Relationship between wave speed to wavelength and water depth
(Tanh is the hyperbolic tangent)
Longer waves travel faster than shorter ones, a phenomenon known as dispersion. If the
water depth is less than one-twentieth of the wavelength, the waves are known as long gravity
waves, and their wavelength is directly proportional to their period. The deeper the water, the
faster they travel. For capillary waves, shorter wavelengths travel faster than longer ones.
Giving the period in seconds, the wavelength in meters, and wave speed in meters per
second, we illustrate some examples in Figure 1.13.

Figure 1.13 Examples for short waves


Waves often appear in groups as the result of interference of wave trains of slightly
differing wavelengths. A wave group as a whole has a group speed that generally is less than the
speed of propagation of the individual waves; the two speeds are equal only for groups
composed of long waves. For deepwater waves, the group velocity (V) is half the wave speed
(C). In the physical sense, group velocity is the velocity of propagation of wave energy. From the
dynamics of the waves, it follows that the wave energy per unit area of the sea surface is
proportional to the square of the wave height, except for the very last stage of waves running into
shallow water, shortly before they become breakers.
Finally, the shape of the waves changes, and the crests become narrower and steeper
until, finally, the waves become breakers. Generally, this occurs where the depth is 1.3 times the
wave height.

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