Tag Archives: wind waves

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! :-)

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? :-)

Wind waves

No matter how often I’ve seen it, I still find it absolutely fascinating how the tiniest structures can have a really visible effect on the downwind wave field. Like for example that pier below, leading to the little hut at the end. There is probably a meter and a half between the water surface and the gangway, which is propped up on really thin pylons. Yet, you clearly see that there are visibly fewer waves downwind of the structure. And the hut itself shades a huge area from wind.

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This kind of stuff is so cool to watch! :-)

Swell and wind waves

Sometimes waves are very regular and mostly of the same length. Those are the ones that I usually talk about when I talk about interference of waves. But of course, other times, there are different kinds of waves with different histories and different lengths, and those do interfere, too. For example in the picture below, there are long swell waves caused by a distant storm, and then small wind waves on top of those, caused by a local breeze.

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The really long swell you can’t even see in the picture, because waves with a couple hundred meters wavelength and just a dozen or so centimeters height are just really hard to photograph… But you get the idea!

Waves on Aasee in Münster. By Mirjam S. Glessmer

Wave hunt expedition. You don’t need to live close to the coast to observe all kinds of wave phenomena!

A 1.5 hour walk around a lake — and 242 photos of said lake — later I can tell you one thing: You definitely don’t need to live close to the coast in order to observe wave phenomena!

The idea to go on a “wave hunt expedition” is actually not mine (although it definitely sounds like something I could have come up with!), it’s Robinson’s idea. Robinson had students go on wave hunt expeditions as part of their examination, and present their results in a poster. I was so impressed with that, that I had to do it myself. Obviously. So the second best thing about work travel (right after the best thing, again, obviously!) is that I find myself in a strange place with time on my hand to wander around and explore. Not that Münster might not have been a nice city to explore, but the lake…

Anyway. I only want to show you 53 out of the 242 pictures. I was going to annotate all of them so you actually see what I mean. And I started annotating. But since I am giving a workshop tomorrow (which is all prepared and ready, but I do need my beauty sleep!) I only drew the key features in the pictures, and you will have to come up with the correct keywords all by yourself (have your pick: refraction! diffraction! fetch! interference! :-)) So click through the gallery below and see first the original photo and then one that I drew in. Do you spot the same stuff that I saw, or what else do you see? Let me know!

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If you think it would be useful to see all those pictures with proper annotations and descriptions at some point please let me know. I might still be excited enough to actually do it, who knows…

P.S.: I actually really enjoy work travel for the work parts, too. For example, I went to a great workshop in Dortmund earlier this year to learn about a quality framework for quantitative research, and that workshop was amazing. And a week ago, I went to Stuttgart for a meeting with all the fellows of the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, which was also great. And now I am giving this workshop in Münster, that I am actually really excited about because I managed to condense pretty much all I know about “active learning in large groups” into a 2.5 hour workshop. Just so you don’t get the wrong idea about my priorities. Obviously water comes first, but then work is a very close second ;-)

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).