Tag Archives: wind-generated waves

The wonders of a Wadden Sea. Or what someone addicted to #wavewatching thinks they are

As someone living on the German Baltic Sea coast, I don’t spend a lot of time on the North Sea coast (except, actually, my week-long vacation after Easter with my godson and his family, and when my friend Frauke and I went to Sylt earlier this year, or when Frauke and I are going back to the North Sea next weekend. So maybe that’s actually not so little time on the North Sea coast compared to most other people?).

Anyway. I really like the North Sea, especially because I like the flat landscape where the highest points are dykes.

What I really dislike, though, is getting my feet muddy. But that’s pretty much the whole point of a North Sea vacation, according to my godson and his family.

On the other hand, though, having the opportunity to actively and directly influence water depth (or, as normal people would probably say, leaving footprints in the mud) makes for some pretty cool wave watching!

It’s a little hard to see, but if you look at the picture above, you see that the sun is coming from kinda behind my left shoulder, and the picture below is taken from a similar perspective (just telling you so you can interpret the footprints and resulting waves). So the left edges of the footprints are actually coming up and partly out of the water.

The wind is coming from the right, and you see the locally generated wind ripples and how they get defracted around the obstacles created by the foot prints!

Pretty cool, eh?

In the picture below, the wind is coming from the left and you see the muddy wakes of the fresh footprints! This I think is pretty awesome, especially because you at the same time see the refraction of waves around the obstacles.

What I also think is pretty cool are the little spaghetti piles of sand that the worms living in the mud leave behind.

And that, for each of the piles, there is a funnel somewhere close by, and a worm connecting the two inside the mud!

But then when the water is gone completely, it’s still pretty here, but also a liittle boring. Don’t you agree?

Ok, but it’s still pretty. But Wadden Sea and tides take the fun out of wave watching for quite substantial amounts of time every day, and I don’t approve of that ;-)

Night swimming… or at least night-time wave watching

Looking at Kiel fjord in the picture below, it is quite obvious from the shape of the waves that those waves are some ship’s wake.

Why is that obvious? Because the waves a) have a very short wavelength for their height, and b) are also all of the same wavelength. What I mean by that is a) on Kiel fjord, if we see waves that high that are driven by the wind, their wavelength is a lot longer since the waves have been building up over a long distance. For short waves to display such an amplitude, the waves would have to run up a fairly steep slope which I know is not the case in this location (and which would also lead to two or three high crests in the shallowest part of the water, not to as many as far out as we see here). B) we don’t see a spectrum of wavelengths as we would expect in a wind-driven wave field. In fact, the water surface doesn’t display any ripples or other evidence of wind at all.

And what do you see when you look at water at night? :)

Wave watching from a train

You know how they say that the journey is the destination? That was certainly the case for my spontaneous mini-vacation yesterday (and how awesome is it that my #BestTravelBuddy is up for a cross country trip on a day’s notice?). We went all the way from the east coast to the west coast — which in Germany admittedly isn’t that terribly far — to visit the island Sylt in the North Sea for a day.

Even the train ride itself is spectacular, though, at least if you are as easily excited as we are. Wave watching from the bridge across the Kiel canal in Rendsburg (below): A super neat wake of the ship, showing the turbulent wake as well as the feathery V-shaped wake. And as you can see from the rows of foam on the water that are a sign of Langmuir circulation (more about that here): It was pretty windy, too!

But it got even better when we reached the west coast. This is my kind of train ride!

Below is a view of the dam that connects the island Sylt with the main land, and here again you see how windy it is, and this is in the lee of the island. In the lee of those shallow dams you see that it really doesn’t take long for the surface roughness to increase again.

So are you excited to see the wind-ward side of the island now? I’ll post some wave watching from that side soon, but I first have to wade through literally thousands of pictures to cut it down to a handful. I’m already down to about the 100 best, but now I can’t decide which ones to post, because I like them all…

But here is a picture of the train ride back. Do you notice how there are regions with really low surface roughness on either side of the dam, suggesting that this dam is sheltering the water surface from the wind in two directions? Of course it isn’t — it’s just ebb tide and the smooth surface areas towards the right of the dam are wet sand that look similar to a smooth water surface.

So that’s my wave watching from the train! Excited to go back soon! :-)

Visiting the ruins of a wave power plant — waves running up a funnel to fill a reservoir

Using wave energy to generate electricity sounds very attractive, after all there are tons of waves and all they do (in addition to looking pretty) is eroding coast lines. But that’s exactly the problem: There is a lot of energy in waves, so wave power plants have to be extremely tough.

Here is another post about the ruins of the wave power plant I visited on Toftøy. For an idea on the size of the waves on this not-very-windy day with fairly moderate waves, check out the movie at the end of this post (there are two people that you might be able to spot on the rocks on the other side, and those pillars used to carry a bridge). 

Below you see the waves entering a funnel that will lead them slightly uphill…

…so the water can fill up reservoir which is located higher than sea level…

…in order to drive turbines when the reservoir is emptied out again into the sea.

You already see the huge amount of energy stored in those waves, and looking at how little is left of the power plant, it’s definitely safer to stay well clear of those waves!

Check out in the movie below what it looks like when waves enter this power plant (and pay attention to the two people on the rock on the other side — they clearly didn’t expect that much energy in the waves! :-D)

Visiting the ruins of a wave power plant — waves driving a turbine

After posting about how longer fetch leads to higher waves yesterday, here is why I was in that exact spot in the first place: To visit an old wave power plant on Toftøyna! The power plant was built in the 80s but destroyed only a couple of years after it had been built, so all there is to see now are some pretty exciting ruins!

Below, you see a cylinder that is a couple of meters high and some meters across, and that connects the air above the water with the water below. There used to be a turbine sitting at the top of that cylinder that used to be driven by the air column moved by waves at the base of the cylinder. The turbine is long gone, but what still happens is waves putting the water inside the cylinder into motion. And that looks pretty impressive as you see in the movie below!

Looking at those fountains shooting out of the cylinder, it’s not difficult to imagine what enormous kinds of forces the turbine had to endure before it got destroyed. Super impressive!

But what’s similarly impressive to me is how there are tiny flowers growing in this harsh environment. I guess it’s true: “life, eh, finds a way” :D

Same wind, different waves, or: the influence of fetch length on the size of waves

I just found this picture that I took back in May near my friend Elin’s cabin on an island in western Norway, and it’s a really nice illustration of how the same wind will cause very different waves depending on whether it’s blowing over the sea for many kilometres, or over a puddle for only a couple of centimetres.

Wave watching: Refraction and diffraction of waves

A little more wave watching, today with a focus on how waves change direction when they run into shallow water. Let’s look at this beautiful wave and see what happens when it reaches the shallow shore.

Above, you see the wake of the pilot ship, consisting of many wavelets that propagate as parallel wave crests towards the shore.

Below, you see that the wave is propagating at an angle to the shore (something around 45 degrees, maybe?). If you focus on the wave crest that is just offshore of that little obstacle in the water (curious enough, a piece of brick wall), you clearly observe that angle. But then looking at the next wave crest in-shore, it is almost parallel to the shore! Assuming that both crests come from the same wave field, so that the second one was in the same position as the other one only moments before (which I know it was because I observed it), something clearly happened between then and now.

Refraction of waves

Why do waves change direction as the water depth changes? As waves run from deep into shallow water, at some point they start to “feel” the bottom, which slows them down.

Or, more scientifically speaking, the dispersion relation for shallow water waves is a function of water depth: The shallower the water, the slower the waves. That means that if a wave crest is running on a slope with one side being in shallower water while the other one is still in deeper water, it will change direction towards the shallow water because the shallow side of the crest is slowed down while the deeper side keeps on moving faster, thus forcing the whole crest around a curve.

But in this picture series there is more to see: See how the wave crest gets deformed after it has passed that obstacle?

Diffraction of waves

This is a process called diffraction: The change of direction after a wave crest has passed either through a slit and then starts radiating from that slit as circle segments, or, in this case, an obstacle. The wave passing an obstacle is, in a way, the same as the wave passing through two wide slits which are very close to each other, only separated by the obstacle: The edges of the wave crest at the edges of the “slits” also start radiating out as circle segments!

One spot, so many things to observe!

And there are, of course, ships. What I wanted to show on this picture is a close-up of the turbulent wake of the ship, but it’s really difficult to see so I’ll let that pass for today.

And the picture below shows so much cool stuff: Waves radiating from that pylon. Ripples on the surface by a gust of wind. Wave crests getting a lot steeper as they run up on the slope. And, my main reason for posting: I really like how the wave is spilling as it breaks! :-)

Wave watching: A wake, another wake, and a mystery wave

And we are wave watching again!

A ship’s wake and the different zones within

Here is the wake of the little ferry that goes across Kiel canal.

I love how you can see the different parts that a wake consists of: The V with the ship at its tip that consists of wavelets from the bow wave and that spreads outwards. And then the turbulent wake where the ship has physically displaced the water when sailing through, and that then has been thoroughly mixed by the ship’s propellers.

This second, turbulent wake actually changes the water’s surface for quite some time. Propellers put the water in rotation and it slowly entrains surrounding waters, and this turbulent motion looks substantially different from the “normal” sea surface. It can even be spotted from satellites long after the ships are gone. You’ve probably sometimes noticed streaks on the sea even though no ships were present — those might well have been the remains of wakes!

But speaking of ships that have sailed…

Wake of a ship that sailed past a while ago

Here is another example of a wake being visible quite some time after the ship has sailed past. However what we see here is the feather-y train of wavelets from the V reaching the shore.

While we were looking at it, my friend mentioned that the waves seemed to approach a lot more slowly than she had expected. That’s because the movement we first notice is the phase velocity of individual wave crests. But when you look closely, you can’t follow one individual wave crest for a very long time, it always appears and you have to start over. That’s because the signal, the V itself, only moves with the group velocity, which moves at half the velocity of the wave crests. That really looks confusing! Unfortunately I didn’t get a good movie of this. But there is always next wave watching session! :-)

And a mystery wave!

But then what would any wave watching session be without a riddle.

Any idea what caused the wave pattern below? Not the obvious, larger waves, but the concentric circle segments that radiate outwards from somewhere in the bottom right?

This is a case where it is really helpful when you recognize where the picture was taken, because there is some important information missing from the picture: The straight edge continues on for a little to the right, and then it opens up to a fairly long channel coming in.

However what you do see is the wind direction from the way the water is smooth right at the shoreline and then ripples start to form as you look further away: The wind is blowing out onto the water.

Now combine those two informations and you understand how that wave pattern was generated!

Diffraction at a “slit”

Wind-generated waves move as (more or less) straight crests out of the channel that opens into Kiel fjord just outside the right edge of the picture above. Then, suddenly, they aren’t bound at the sides any more, and what happens looks like diffraction at a slit (except the slit is fairly wide in this case): The straight crests turn and form 90 degree circle segments that radiate outwards. Voila!

Wave watching at the Kiel Holtenau locks

So many people are surprised when I speak of wave watching as of a “real activity”. But to me it is! So I am going to talk you through a couple of minutes I spent looking out on the water where the Kiel Canal meets the Kiel fjord, right outside the locks at Kiel Holtenau.

A light breeze across the fjord

The “light breeze” part is fairly easy to observe: There are ripples on the water, but no actual waves. “Across the fjord” is also fairly obvious if you look at either side of the wave breaker: On the fjord side, there are ripples, on the shore side, there are none (or hardly any), indicating that the wave breaker is sheltering the shore-side from the wind (and dampening out the waves that come across the fjord).

And then: A ship sails into view!

We watch the ship sail past, dreaming of foreign countries and exciting adventures.

A ship leaving a wake

Behind the ship, the water looks very different from what it looks like everywhere else. The wake is turbulent and waves radiate outwards like a V, with the ship always at its tip.

Then, the ship is gone. But we can still see where it went.

There are no waves in the tubulent wake

The ship’s path is completely smooth. No waves have invaded the turbulent waters of the wave just yet, claimed them back. However, the waves the ship created in that V are about to reach the wave breaker.

Also the wind has picked up a little, as evident from the less smooth water surface shore-ward of the wave breakers.

Diffraction at a slit

Right after the waves from the V reach the wave breaker, they reach the opening at the end between the pylons. And what happens now is that the waves get diffracted at a “slit”: they propagate outwards as semi circles, even though the wave fronts were straight when they reached the slit.

How awesome is that? And all of this happening in a matter of minutes!

The weather changes

I said earlier that there was hardly any wind. Later that afternoon, it still wasn’t very windy, but the wind direction had changed: now the smooth and sheltered part has moved to the other side of the wave breakers. There are a lot more waves on the shore side of the wave breaker now, the ones with crests parallel to the wave breaker due to it moving, and the ones with crests perpendicular to it generated by wind. And you see gusts of wind on the sea side of the wave breakers in the different surface roughness.

So if you were wondering, too: That’s the kind of stuff I look at when I am wave watching. And I still find it super fascinating and relaxing at the same time! :-)

When not the fetch but a funnel shapes the wave field

As you know we are currently preparing for future wave riddles. So this afternoon I went out for a wave hunt again and found something beautiful for you!

The ship coming out of the Kiel-Holtenau locks into the Kiel Canal is making waves, but although those are pretty exciting, too, there are more things going on in the picture above…

Many processes can create waves

In addition to waves made by ships, seagulls, the locks opening and closing, and those waves being shaped by reflection, refraction, and all those other processes, most waves look actually pretty similar, and they are all formed by the same process.

Most waves are wind waves

In almost all situations it’s a safe guess that most of the waves you see are caused by the wind. Either locally, or by storms far away. Of course, the waves might look very different from day to day and location to location. But as a rule of thumb, the stronger the wind, and the longer it has been blowing, and the longer its way over water without any obstacles in its way, the higher the waves.

Usually the length of the fetch shapes the wave field

This uninterrupted stretch that the wind can blow over the water is called the “fetch”. And it explains why you don’t have really large waves on small ponds: if the fetch isn’t long enough, waves just don’t have enough time to build up from when they are generated at the upwind side of the pond until they have reached the downwind side.

Sometimes obstacles shape the wind field

Sometimes though, there are obstacles in the wind field that cause interesting wave phenomena. Below you see that the wind that has been coming across Kiel Canal is interrupted by those pylons. Upwind of the pylons the waves are fairly regular and pretty boring.

But remember your Bernoulli? If the area across a flow decreases, for continuity reasons the flow speed has to increase.

Since air is “flowing” in that sense, too, it’s accelerated where it goes in between and around those pylons since it has to squeeze through a smaller cross section than it had to its deposal further upwind.

The wind field is mirrored in the wave field — well, kind of

Do you see how the faster wind causes all these nice little ripples? Maybe “mirroring” the wind field isn’t quite the right way to express it, but you can definitely see where the wind speeds are different from the rest of the Kiel Canal just by looking at the waves! From there the waves then propagate as sectors of circles outwards and leave the areas of the high wind speed, but they quickly dissipate and vanish again.

Wave watching is awesome. Can you think of anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon? :-)