Waves...they’re beautiful, powerful, soothing, and highly sought after in the surfing community. But what in the world is a wave? What does it really do, how is it formed, and what creatures rely on them? In this post, we’ll explore the world of waves, and it’ll be a wave of a time! (Never too many puns).
It all begins with movement and the wind. When the ocean’s water has movement underneath the surface, this is known as currents. If the movement is above the surface, we see this movement as waves. On very windy days, tiny waves known as white caps will appear on the ocean’s surface and create ocean conditions. The wind is the driving force and the start of a wave. When there is wind near the surface of seawater, there is friction between the wind’s air molecules and the water molecules. This friction causes an energy transfer between the wind and the water, and CRASH- a wave was formed. Generally, the shape of these waves has a crest and rounded top that swoop up and out of the water and capsize over and break against the surface.
Well, That’s Swell
Swells are a little bit different! Technically, swells are created from distant storms rather than the wind, which is usually closer in proximity. Think of it as waves being local, and swells being made from storms that are way out of town. Swells can rush over the ocean as a set or constant stream of smoother waves. This is why people can measure the distance, timing, and strength of this grouping of waves called a swell.
Is This Current, or Shifting Tides?
Currents are also slightly different! Currents in the ocean are influenced by the Coriolis effect. National Geographic says, “The Coriolis effect describes the pattern of deflection taken by objects not firmly connected to the ground as they travel long distances around the Earth.” This term and effect are studied and found throughout weather patterns. The Earth’s rotation works hand-in-hand with the Coriolis effect. This affects currents because underneath the water, lies ocean currents. These currents are created by tides and the Coriolis effect. Tides have increased strength near shores, bays, and estuaries. As the water moves inland, the tide rises and in contrast when the water recedes, the tide falls. The gravitational pull of the moon and the sun create tides (Smithsonian Ocean).
The Gulf Stream is a great example of a notable current. The world’s largest current is the Kuroshio Current, which can travel 25-75 miles per day (NOAA National Ocean Service).
But Why Waves?
There are many marine creatures that benefit from waves in the ocean. Waves help mix up the composition and sediment in the ocean. Additionally, they provide essential oxygenation for water below the surface. Intertidal organisms benefit from the movement of nutrients carried by waves.
There are both predators and prey that use waves for recreation, hunting ground, and a hiding spot. Humans have often encountered sea lions and dolphins near waves as it is a nutrient-rich area where dolphins can play or sea lions can hide. Additionally, sharks can use waves as a force to channel their power, strength, and speed into hunting and finding a meal.
Waves also contribute to life cycles for several species. The changing of the seasons and tides is important for animals’ life cycles in or near the shore. Without waves washing up nutrients and food such as kelp, several types of animals would not flourish before making the journey into the ocean.
Written By: Bailey Higa