Sun, 16 Jun 2019

Curious Kids: why are there waves?

The Conversation
24 May 2019, 10:17 GMT+10

Faster, bigger, longer

The faster the wind blows (like in a strong storm out at sea), the bigger the waves will grow.

The further the wind blows (or the bigger the area of the storm), the bigger the waves will grow.

And the longer the wind blows (like in a storm that lasts a long time), the bigger the waves will grow.

If the wind stops, or changes direction, the waves will stop growing, but they won't stop travelling.

They will keep travelling away from where they were created in a straight line, sometimes for days, until they run into something like a beach where they are stopped because they break. That's why there are still waves at the beach, even when it is not windy.

Waves trip over themselves

Imagine you were running really quickly. But then suddenly, you ran into thick gloopy mud. Your feet would slow down, but the top half of your body would still be going fast. You'd trip over.

Waves do the same thing and that is when they break.

As waves approach the shore, the water is shallower, and the bottom of the wave starts to feel the sand and rocks and seaweed. The bottom of the wave slows down, and soon, the top of the wave is going faster than the bottom part of the wave, so the top spills forward and topples over in a big splash.

Waves can travel a long way

Scientists who study the ocean (called oceanographers) have measured waves created in the Southern Ocean, and seen them travel all the way across the Pacific Ocean and break on the beaches of North America more than a week later.

Try counting the seconds between waves breaking on the beach. If the time between waves is 10 seconds or more, the waves have come from a long way away. If the waves were created nearby, the time between waves will be short, perhaps five seconds or fewer.

Sometimes when we look at the sea we might see different waves (some big, some small) all happening at the same time. These waves were created at different places, perhaps by different storms, but ended up in the same spot at the same time.

Freak waves

During big storms, waves can get very big. If big waves from two different storms meet together, that can create enormous waves that we call "freak waves". The largest waves measured are around 25 metres high (that's five giraffes standing on top of each other!) and they can tip over ships.

Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you'd like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.au

Please tell us your name, age and which city you live in. We won't be able to answer every question but we will do our best.

Author: Mark Hemer - Senior Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO

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