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Distribution of breaking waves at the ocean surface


Surface waves play an important role in the exchange of mass, momentum and energy between the atmosphere and the ocean. The development of the wave field depends on wind, wave–wave and wave–current interactions and wave dissipation owing to breaking, which is accompanied by momentum fluxes from waves to currents. Wave breaking supports air–sea fluxes of heat and gas1,2, which have a profound effect on weather and climate. But wave breaking is poorly quantified and understood. Here we present measurements of wave breaking, using aerial imaging and analysis, and provide a statistical description of related sea-surface processes. We find that the distribution of the length of breaking fronts per unit area of sea surface is proportional to the cube of the wind speed and that, within the measured range of the speed of the wave fronts, the length of breaking fronts per unit area is an exponential function of the speed of the front. We also find that the fraction of the ocean surface mixed by breaking waves, which is important for air–sea exchange, is dominated by wave breaking at low velocities and short wavelengths.

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Figure 1: Whitecap imaging and image processing.
Figure 2: Measurements of Λ(c) and its moments.
Figure 3: Wavenumber spectra of the surface waves and of Λ(c) and its moments.
Figure 4: Directional distributions of Λ(c) and its moments.


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These measurements would not have been possible without the fearless flying of T. Crawford and the support of his group at NOAA who made additional airborne measurements. We are grateful to D. Shear for his work on the initial design, construction and testing of the aerial imaging system. W.K.M. thanks T. Hara and O. Phillips for stimulating conversations on the measurement and modelling of equilibrium wave spectra, and O. Madsen and T. Herbers for advice on wave dissipation in bottom boundary layers. We are grateful to F. Veron for carefully reading and commenting on the manuscript. W.K.M. acknowledges the hospitality of the Isaac Newton Institute, Cambridge University, during the revision of this paper. This work was supported by grants from the ONR (Physical Oceanography) and the NSF (Ocean Sciences).

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Correspondence to W. Kendall Melville.

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Melville, W., Matusov, P. Distribution of breaking waves at the ocean surface. Nature 417, 58–63 (2002).

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