The ocean is a truly fascinating place. It is the origin of all life, and plays a major role in keeping all life on earth alive today. About 80% of the carbon dioxide emitted is transformed back into oxygen by the blue-green algae populating the vast ocean. We dump countless amounts of waste and pollutants into the ocean and she does her best to process them. At the same time we gorge ourselves on the fruits the ocean provides.
Most of the humans on earth live bordering the oceans. Many of the world's major cities are coastal. We transport everything we could ever need across her waters. She provides us with fun as well. Swimming, surfing, snorkeling, and just standing in her lapping waves fill up the soul with ease.
In my free time I am an avid surfer, scouting the tropical storms while chasing waves up and down the coast. I didn’t realize until I started surfing how many factors influence the quality of waves. First, we should discuss how waves are formed and how they break. Contrary to what it seems, the waves are actually energy passing through water, rather than water moving itself
Waves exist in the same way any wave of energy travels. It moves up and down in a half helix pattern, the same as photons of light, the microwaves warming your hot pocket, and the Elvis song reaching your car's radio. As this energy moves through the water, the water molecules travel in a small circle along with the energy. They are pulled down and then because water has high surface tension and sticks to itself, they get pulled back up close to their original position.
When floating and a swell line passes by you, notice the circular motion the wave moves you in, it is the same for the water molecules. As the wave reaches the shore, it begins to lurch up and eventually crash. The easiest way to understand how this works is to imagine yourself running at high speed and then being tripped. Here your feet are stopped completely but your upper half keeps moving and you fall right on your face. This happens as a wave approaches the shore, the bottom half is slowed down “tripped” by the shoreline and the top half falls over itself. Because of the half helix movement of the waves energy, the waves fall in a circle, this is why waves appear tube-like in the middle when they crash.
The abruptness of the shoreline effects the way waves crash. If the incline is gentle, the wave will slowly fall and spill over itself and gradually release its energy this way. If the shoreline is steep and sudden, the wave comes from deep to shallow water quickly, it will aggressively spill over itself and be much more hollow.
Because of the way waves crash, different ocean bottoms and shapes can create short hollow waves, or long gradual ones. The angle of where the waves come from has a huge impact as well. If the wave comes straight on, it will crash along the whole beach simultaneously, but if it comes from the side it can peel and gradually release its energy down the beach. Trying to understand what the bottom of the ocean looks like, and where the waves will start to crash is crucial to understanding how they will break, along with the angle of the swell.
Waves themselves are mostly created by large storms occurring far out into the ocean. The intense wind speeds shove energy into the water that can travel for thousands of miles to crash gently on the shore. Wind at the beach also plays an important role. If winds are blowing towards the beach or from the sides, these can also cause waves to crash prematurely or crumble. However, if wind is blowing directly offshore, it can hold waves up and create a beautiful perfect shape that has them crash slowly and hold wide open.
There are many factors that influence the way waves come into our beaches. I have really just scratched the surface here. Take some time when you are at the beach to try and correlate these factors I have described to the shape of the waves.
Photos taken by Isaac Yelchin
Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.