Ocean Wave Breaking Stirs Up Atmosphere
2013 05 07

From: Physics

Simulations show that breaking ocean waves contribute most of their energy to the air, rather than the water, which could affect cloud formation and climate evolution.

Ocean waves breaking far from land often stir up significant motion in the atmosphere, according to simulations published in Physical Review Letters. This finding, based on the most accurate and computationally intensive model to date, contradicts the previous belief among experts, that most of the energy from breaking waves remains in the water. The results could help researchers improve wave forecasting models, which are a component of weather and climate modeling.

In the absence of storms, waves on the open ocean arise from wind blowing over the water. Through a process known as modulation instability, one of the waves in a group can begin stealing energy from its neighbors, eventually growing so steep that it breaks. This process may be responsible for a large fraction of all wave breaking, so researchers want an accurate picture of it, to understand the energy flow between the atmosphere and the ocean. But previous attempts to simulate such wave breaking have relied on relatively simple models that ignored potentially important effects, like the viscosity of water and interactions between water and air. One consequence of this lack of air-water interaction was that any energy released by wave breaking remained entirely in the water.


To their surprise, the researchers found that about three-quarters of the breaking wave’s energy ended up in the air. Much of this energy went into vortices, or pockets of rotating air, above the ocean surface. These vortices formed counter-rotating pairs known as vortex dipoles that were then launched to heights of up to 200 meters. Such vortices could transport tiny water droplets known as aerosols into the atmosphere, where they could seed clouds. Onorato finds this possibility “the most intriguing part” of his team’s results, because it could change weather forecasters’ understanding of cloud formation. And since clouds absorb incoming sunlight as well as thermal radiation from the Earth, the results may also affect climate modeling.

Read the full article at: physics.aps.org

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