Tracking Subsurface Skyscraper WavesReading time: 2 minutes
Scientists from the University of Miami have spent seven years tracking a subsurface phenomenon in the South China Sea. This research was part of a collaborative international field study trying to develop a greater understanding of internal wave action.
Internal waves are the subsurface equivalent to surface gravity waves that break on beaches. They are generated primarily by the action of wind and tides and have been known to travel thousands of kilometres from their sources before breaking. The most powerful known internal waves, which can reach up to 170 meters (558 feet) tall, originate from the Luzon Strait (the strait between Taiwan and Luzon island of the Philippines) growing larger as they head west. This project to clarify aspects of these skyscraper waves including the mechanism of generation, the unexplained variability in occurrence and the energy budget of the waves throughout their lifespan.
In order to track these waves, the team of scientists made use of satellite imagery collected at the University of Miami’s Center for South-eastern Tropical Remote Sensing (CSTARS). The top-down viewpoint allowed the scientists to pick up on surface ripples propagated by the internal wave’s current. The result of the study was the production of a unique ‘cradle-to-grave’ picture of internal waves on a ocean basin scale.
So why is it important to discover more about the characteristics of these mammoth waves? Due to the strong vertical and horizontal currents, and turbulent mixing caused by their breaking, internal waves can influence a plethora of oceanic processes; they can affect sediment/pollutant transport and subsequently global fisheries, they can disrupt acoustic transmission, they can pose a threat to man-made structures in the ocean such as submarines and they can influence the supply of nutrients for marine primary production thus having a potentially significant impact on future climate models and predictions. This study and future research is thus vital in developing a more well-rounded understanding of past, present and future changes in ocean dynamics.
The link to the original journal article is here
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