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How Ocean Waves Form and Break

waves form by wind

Waves that travel over a long distance will be larger, faster and more powerful.

How Ocean Waves Form

Ocean waves form by wind. The longer and stronger the wind blows, the larger the size of the wave will be. There are two types of waves; wind waves and swell waves. Wind waves are usually produced by nearby storms and travel only a short distance making the wave very weak. Swell waves are produced from storms and travel a long distance past its point of origin. The longer a wave travels uninterrupted, the larger, faster and more powerful the wave will become. Waves with a high period or time it takes for a wave to travel a certain distance will have much more power than those with a low period.

How Waves Break

closeout wave breaking on the shore at Kahaluu in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii

A wave will begin to break as it moves over a shallow bottom.

Waves break when they reach a shallow coastline where the water is half as deep as the wave is tall. As a wave travels across the open ocean, it gains speed. When a wave reaches a shallow coastline, the wave begins to slow down due to the friction caused by the approaching shallow bottom. The wave begins to slow down from the bottom first causing the back of the wave to stand up upon itself. Think of it like driving a car at high speed and then slamming on the breaks. Everything is going to fly to the front.

Once the wave reaches a certain height, it begins to crest over itself and break creating the whitewash.

Once a wave has broken it will continue to lose speed and power as it travels toward the shore. This is why you will see experienced surfers riding the waves before they begin to crest or break and beginner surfers riding the whitewash closer towards the shore.

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1 Response to "How Ocean Waves Form and Break"

  1. […] all starts with understanding how the waves move and break. Get a sense of what happens when you are underwater with a huge wave passing above your head. […]

  2. Gregory Nagy says:

    I was in the Bahamas diving for conch , Cape Eleuthera to be exact. We ran out of fuel and were at sea for 26 hrs in a 14 foot boston whaler with 500 lbs of conch. Why is it that every 6th or 7th wave is so much larger, stronger than the other waves, why 6 or 7 ? thx to you and all the best !

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