The raging ocean has inspired and awed mankind for millennia. In recent times, surfers have claimed a special relationship with the ocean, but in reality, we’re all more connected to the waves than we might think.
Throughout its lifetime, a wave can take on many forms and play a role in a range of natural systems. To better understand how we’re all influenced by the surf, let’s follow a wave from its beginnings in the open ocean to its final destination on the coastline.
Our wave, like all ocean swells, is whipped up by the friction of wind on the sea surface. It marches as part of an army of swell lines, their pattern changing the absorption of the sun’s radiation into the ocean. Closer to shore, they can power renewable energy generators placed at strategic locations.
The real fun begins when our wave enters shallow water, stands up and breaks. The curling lip of the wave crashes down, triggering the formation of roiling bubbles of all different shapes and sizes. The dynamics of this process are complex, but the results can be spectacular – cylindrical bubble rings are dragged out under the surface by the lip of the wave (left), before the entire wave collapses into a series of vortexes which resemble looming underwater thunderheads. These bubble vortexes act like a giant aerator in the world’s biggest fish tank. The ocean is a major sink for CO2, with surf zones an ideal mixing point for the absorption of this gas into the water.
The force of our wave kicks up sand and debris and wears away at rocks on the shoreline, lending a hand to the long-term shaping of the coast. A multitude of tiny bubbles, created as our wave rolled on to the beach, rise to the surface and pop, firing a mist of tiny water droplets into the air – like the fizz of fresh soda, but on a massive scale. These droplets can carry salts and other particles through the air, depositing them inland, affecting coastal vegetation and the weathering of hard structures. Not only that, the wave mist affects cloud and storm formation, playing a part in local and regional weather.
So, next time you’re at the beach, remember that the waves aren’t just for surfers. They help to regulate our atmosphere, the temperature of the Earth, the weather and the very shape of the land!