Fetch and wind waves

Summer holidays in beautiful Cornwall – what more can you ask for? If only these pictures weren’t from last year… Anyway, one can dream.

And one can find awesome oceanography everywhere. Take for example the picture below. Do you see how the bow lines of the ships have enough slack to hang in the water?

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Mevagissey harbour

If you look closely, this is what you see: Wind waves being dampened out by the swimming ropes, and then gradually building up again on the other side of the rope.

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Wind waves

Oceanography is everywhere! :-)

Wind waves meet current

Wind waves on one side of the current – no waves on the other.

Recently in Bergen, I was walking to meet up with a friend at the kayak club, and I had to cross a bridge that has always fascinated me. Underneath the bridge, there is only a very narrow opening connecting basically the ocean on one side and a small bay on the other side. On this part of the Norwegian coast, the tidal range is easily of the order of a meter, so this narrow opening under the bridge makes for some pretty strong currents. In fact, when paddling through that opening, when the tide is right you can really see how the surface elevation changes from one side of the bridge to the other.

So when I was walking there recently, this is what I saw:

Strong current from the lower left to the upper right of the picture, wind blowing from the right, hence waves on the right side of the current and no waves on the left side.

This might be difficult to see on this picture, but there is a strong current going from the lower left corner of the picture towards the upper right. And on the right side of that current there are a lot of wind waves. But on the left side there are hardly any, even though there is nothing blocking the wind, just the current blocking the propagation of waves. Wind is coming from the right here.

I found it really fascinating how this current acted as a barrier to the waves and stood a couple of minutes watching. A couple of people stopped and looked, too, but didn’t find anything interesting to see and were slightly puzzled. But what I see is fetch (or that there isn’t enough of it on the left side of the current) and hydraulic jumps (or that the current is clearly going faster than the waves are). Which means that I start wondering how fast that current would have to be in order to stop waves from propagating across. Which then means I start estimating the wave lengths in oder to estimate the waves’ velocities to answer the previous question. So that’s reason enough to stand there for quite some time, just watching, right?

A fetching title for a fetching photo post

Using a photo from one of my research cruises to explain the formation of wind waves.

Wind waves are (surprise coming up!) waves generated by wind that blows over the ocean’s surface. The size of those waves depends on several factors: The strength of the wind, the length of time the wind has been blowing over the ocean, and  the fetch (hence the “fetching” title of this post).

The bow of the RRS James Clark Ross and wind-generated waves in front of it. Note how the wind direction is indicated by the wind vane, and how parts of the ocean are sheltered by the ice floes.

The image above is really useful to talk about this concept. We see the wind direction indicated by the wind vane at the bow of the RRS James Clark Ross. In the lee of the ice floes, the water surface is smooth because it is sheltered from the wind. As the distance from the ice flow, and hence the fetch, increases, waves start forming again. In addition to the formation of waves, you can see how waves are refracted around the ice floe.

I like teaching using photos that I took myself. Not only do they show exactly what I want to talk about, but they also give me the opportunity to share stories, like in this case of how I took that photo when we were first approaching the ice edge in the Greenland Sea and then the next day there was ice everywhere and we saw polar bears. Not only are students entertained and fascinated hearing personal stories of experiences at sea, I think that those stories are also important for helping students form their self-image as an oceanographer, and for motivating them to stick it out through the tougher spots of their studies. Stories also help students remember content, and story telling is a very useful method in the classroom (but more about that in another post).