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Ocean surface wave

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Ocean surface waves are surface waves that occur in the upper layer of the ocean. They usually result from wind or geologic effects like earthquakes or vulcanicity and may travel thousands of miles before striking land. They range in size from small ripples to huge tsunamis. There is little actual forward motion of individual water particles in an unbroken wave, despite the large amount of energy and momentum it may carry forward.

Breaking waves at Children's Pool, in La Jolla, CA.

Wave formation

The great majority of large breakers one sees on an ocean beach result from distant winds. Three factors influence the formation of "wind waves":

  • Wind speed
  • Distance of open water that the wind has blown over
  • Length of time the wind has blown over a given area.

All of these factors work together to determine the size and shape of ocean waves. The greater each of the variables, the larger the waves. Waves are measured by:

  • Height (from trough to crest)
  • Wavelength (from crest to crest)
  • Period (time interval between arrival of consecutive crests at a stationary point)

Waves in a given area typically have a range of sizes. For weather reporting and for scientific analysis of wind wave statistics, their size over a period of time is usually expressed as "significant wave height." This figure represents the average height of the highest one-third of the waves in a given time period (usually twelve hours) or in a specific wave or storm system. Given the variability of wave size, the largest individual waves are likely to be twice the reported significant wave height for a particular day or storm.


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