Tag Archives: internal waves

Ship-generated internal waves

A tank experiment showing ship-generated internal waves.

When entering a fjord from the open ocean by ship, it can sometimes be noted that the speed of the ship changes even though apparently nothing else changed – the wind didn’t change, the position of the sails didn’t change, the settings on the engine didn’t change – whatever was driving the ship didn’t change. And yet, the ship slowed down. How can that be?

According to the legend (that I like to propagate in my classes), when this phenomenon was first noticed, people attributed it to sea monsters latching onto the ship and slowing it down. Or if not monsters, than at least mollusks and other not-quite mostery monsters. But then Bjerknes came along and, together with Ekman, set up experiments that explain what is taking all the energy away from propulsion. I’ll give you a hint:

Yes – the ship excites internal waves at a density interface. Since the stratification in a fjord is much stronger than in the ocean, driving into a fjord means loosing a lot more energy towards the generation of internal waves.

See the movie here:

Internal waves in the atmosphere

A photo of internal waves in the atmosphere.

Internal waves exist on the interface between fluids of different densities. In the ocean they are mostly observed through their surface imprint. In the tank, we could also observe them by looking in from the side, but this is hardly feasible in the ocean. But luckily vision is easier in the atmosphere than in the ocean.

On our research cruise on the RRS James Clark Ross in August 2012, we were lucky enough to observe atmospheric internal waves, and even breaking ones (see image above). This is quite a rare sight, and a very spectacular one, especially since, due to the low density contrast between the two layers, the waves break extremely slowly.

It is really hard to imagine what it looked like for real. This movie shows the view of Jan Mayen – the volcano, the rest of the island and then the atmospheric waves. Please excuse the wobbly camera – we were after all on a ship and I was too excited to stabilize properly.

Details of lee waves in the tank.

A movie focusing on details of the lee waves in the tank.

In this post, we investigated lee waves in a tank in a general way. Here, I want to show a detail of those lee waves:

In this movie, the concept of hydraulic control becomes visible. On the upstream side of the mountain, the dense water layer forms a reservoir which is slightly higher than the mountain. On top of the mountain and towards its lee side, the layer of denser water is stretched thin and has a smooth surface until about half way down the mountain, where waves start to form. In this thin, smooth layer, flow speeds are higher than the wave speeds, hence disturbances of the interface are flushed downstream and cannot deform the interface. Only about halfway down the mountain, the phase speed becomes equal to the flow speed, hence waves can both form and stay locked in place relative to the mountain.

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

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]:

Internal (lee) waves in a tank.

Lee wave experiment in a large tank with a moving mountain.

In this previous post, we talked about internal waves in a very simple experiment. But Geophysical Institute has a great tank to do lee wave experiments with that I want to present here (although it doesn’t seem to be clear what will happen to the tank when the remodeling of the main building starts in November – I hope we’ll be able to save the tank!). I think it has originally been used for real research, but these days the GEOF130 lab is the only time this tank gets used.


Tank for internal lee wave experiments – a “mountain” is moved through the tank and generates internal waves.

In this tank, a “mountain” can be moved all the length of the tank through more or less stagnant water, thereby simulating a current going over a non-moving mountain (which might be a slightly more realistic setup). At the lee of the mountain, lee waves form on the interface between two water layers of different density.

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

Internal waves in a bottle

Internal waves are shown in simple 0.5l bottles.

Waves travel on the interface between fluids of different densities and the phase speed of those waves depends on the density difference between the two fluids.



Internal waves on the interface between water (dyed blue) and white spirit.

The simplest way to demonstrate this in class can be seen below – two 0.5l plastic bottles are used, one half-filled with water, the other one filled with half water, half vegetable oil. Waves can very easily be excited by moving the bottles, and it is clearly visible that the waves at the interface between water and oil are a lot slower than the ones on the interface between water and air.

For showing this experiment to larger audiences when people can’t play with the bottles themselves, it really helps to color either the water or the oil layer for greater contrast. See here for different combinations that we tried in connection to forskningsdagene in Bergen.

Incidentally, those internal wave bottles are a great toy. If you don’t have one available but wish you had a paper weight as awesome as mine on your desk, here is a movie for you: