Surface imprints of internal waves

How internal waves in the ocean can be spotted on the surface.

Under certain conditions, internal waves in the ocean can be spotted at the ocean’s surface due to changes in surface roughness or to the movement of floating foam or debris. They can be spotted if half their wavelength is longer than the distance between the interface on which the internal wave is traveling and the water surface, so that the orbital movement caused by the internal waves reaches the water surface. In the tank, they can also be seen – for example by adding small floating particles to the water surface.


Internal wave in a tank. Seen from the side due to different coloring of the two layers, and on the surface in the distribution of floating tracer.

In the movie below, you can see the interface between water layers of different densities and the water surface with particles on it. The particles make it easy to spot how the water surface is being stretched and squeezed as internal waves travel through underneath.

For more information on internal waves, check out these posts [which are scheduled to go online over the next couple of days]:

7 thoughts on “Surface imprints of internal waves

  1. Anna

    great videos! which kind of particles did you use for such a clear visualization? I’d like to try some similar experiments in my lab.

  2. mglessmer

    Thanks! The particles are just silver party glitter that I had lying around. The kind of stuff that comes in salt shakers and that you put on glue on handcraft projects, you know?

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