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Scale dependence of bubble creation mechanisms in breaking waves


Breaking ocean waves entrain air bubbles that enhance air–sea gas flux, produce aerosols, generate ambient noise and scavenge biological surfactants. The size distribution of the entrained bubbles is the most important factor in controlling these processes, but little is known about bubble properties and formation mechanisms inside whitecaps. We have measured bubble size distributions inside breaking waves in the laboratory and in the open ocean, and provide a quantitative description of bubble formation mechanisms in the laboratory. We find two distinct mechanisms controlling the size distribution, depending on bubble size. For bubbles larger than about 1 mm, turbulent fragmentation determines bubble size distribution, resulting in a bubble density proportional to the bubble radius to the power of -10/3. Smaller bubbles are created by jet and drop impact on the wave face, with a -3/2 power-law scaling. The length scale separating these processes is the scale where turbulent fragmentation ceases, also known as the Hinze scale. Our results will have important implications for the study of air–sea gas transfer.

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Figure 1: Logarithmic timeline of bubble plume evolution.
Figure 2: Three high-speed video images of a breaking wave crest taken during the acoustically active phase of the wave crest.
Figure 3: Spectrogram of wave noise calculated from an average of 17 breaking events.
Figure 4: The average bubble size spectrum estimated from 14 breaking events during their acoustic phase.
Figure 5: Some bubble fragmentation metrics.
Figure 6: Oceanic bubble size distributions observed 30 cm below whitecaps during the plume quiescent phase.


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We thank G. Devine and J. Uyloan for assistance in laboratory data analysis, and the crew of RP FLIP during oceanic deployments. We also thank D. Farmer, M. Li and C. Garrett for discussions. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.

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Correspondence to Grant B. Deane.

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Deane, G., Stokes, M. Scale dependence of bubble creation mechanisms in breaking waves. Nature 418, 839–844 (2002).

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