Wave Power - The Theory Behind Ocean Waves

Ocean waves have fascinated humans for centuries, serving as both a source of inspiration and a formidable force of nature. But the principles that govern the formation and behavior of ocean waves are not unique to this particular type of wave. Waves of all kinds, whether they are historical, migratory, or scientific in nature, share similar underlying principles that govern their behavior.

Historical waves can refer to significant events or movements that have had a profound impact on human society. These waves often arise in response to cultural, political, or technological shifts, and can be traced back to specific moments in time. For example, the wave of industrialization that swept across Europe and North America in the 19th century transformed the economic and social landscape, creating new opportunities for wealth and growth while also exacerbating existing inequalities. The wave of decolonization that followed World War II similarly reshaped the global political order, leading to the emergence of new nation-states and the recognition of previously marginalized cultures and identities.

Migratory waves, on the other hand, refer to the movement of large groups of people from one region to another. These waves can be driven by a variety of factors, including economic opportunity, political instability, or environmental disasters. For example, the wave of immigration from Europe to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was driven by a combination of factors, including the promise of economic opportunity and the desire to escape political persecution. More recently, the wave of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and other parts of the Middle East has put significant strain on countries in Europe and the Middle East, highlighting the complex geopolitical and humanitarian challenges that can arise from migratory waves.

Scientific waves refer to the gradual accumulation and dissemination of knowledge and understanding over time. These waves are driven by the curiosity and ingenuity of scientists and researchers, who build on the discoveries of their predecessors to develop new insights and technologies. For example, the wave of scientific progress that began in the Enlightenment and continues to this day has transformed our understanding of the natural world, leading to breakthroughs in fields ranging from medicine and engineering to astronomy and cosmology.

In a Deleuzian sense, waves could be seen as a constant process of becoming. They are never static and always in motion, with each wave representing a unique moment in the ongoing process of differentiation and transformation. Waves are also characterized by their infinite variability, constantly changing in response to the environment around them.

In addition, waves can be seen as a manifestation of the virtual, representing the underlying potentiality of the ocean’s movements. The virtual is the realm of pure possibility, containing all the potentialities that have yet to be actualized. Waves are a concrete expression of this potentiality, the embodiment of the ocean’s capacity for movement.

Furthermore, waves are always in relation to other things in their environment, with their form and movement constantly affected by external factors such as wind, temperature, and currents. In this way, waves can be seen as an example of Deleuze’s concept of the “rhizome,” a network of interdependent entities that continually interact and influence each other.

Finally, waves could be understood as a form of difference, both in their individuality as unique expressions of the ocean’s movements and in their ability to create difference in their environment through erosion, deposition, and other processes. Waves are constantly transforming the shorelines they encounter, creating new forms and structures through their movements.

Overall, in a Deleuzian sense, waves are not simply physical phenomena but are instead an expression of the ocean’s capacity for movement, potentiality, and difference, always in motion and constantly transforming in relation to their environment.

Despite the differences in their origins and contexts, all waves share a common set of principles that govern their behavior. Waves are created when energy is transferred from one medium to another, whether it is wind energy being transferred to water in the case of ocean waves or ideas and values being transferred between cultures in the case of historical waves. Waves can also exhibit properties such as frequency, wavelength, and amplitude, which can be used to describe their behavior and predict their effects.

As more energy is transferred deeper into the water, waves have better ability to sustain that energy and travel great distances across oceans. The way to measure wavelengths is by measuring swell period, the time between successive wave crests as they pass a stationary point Waves decay and get smaller the farther they travel. In the middle of a storm there is a confused mix of sea states. Various waves of different heights, directions and swell periods turn the ocean surface into a chaotic mess. We call this the wave spectrum.

All of these waves are the result of different cycles of the storm, with the short-period waves generated by current winds in the local area and the longer period waves generated by winds earlier in the storm’s life that have had a longer time to develop. As the waves move out of the storm they decrease in size within the first thousand miles (+60%) and slowly thereafter. Three factors: short-period waves and chop dissipating rapidly; directional spreading of waves as they move away from the storm at different angles and the separation of waves as they travel forward at different speeds after leaving the storm area. This initial wave-decay process allows the long-period waves to move out from beneath the short-pein the middle of the storm. Once these longer period waves break free from the storm’s confusion, they are easily identified as a organized wave train, we call it swell


Swell is a type of wave that has a more uniform shape and size compared to the chaotic mix of waves found in the middle of a storm. Swell is created when the longer period waves generated by the storm travel away from the storm area and become more organized. This wave train can travel thousands of miles across oceans and can be felt even when the storm that created it is no longer present.

Swell is a crucial factor for surfers, as it determines the quality of waves at a particular surf spot. When swell travels across the ocean and encounters underwater features such as reefs or sandbars, it can create waves that are ideal for surfing. The size and shape of these waves are determined by the characteristics of the swell, such as its period and direction.

In addition to its practical importance for surfers and sailors, swell also plays a critical role in shaping the earth’s coastlines. Over millions of years, the constant pounding of waves on the shore can erode rocks and reshape coastlines, creating iconic features such as sea stacks, arches, and cliffs. Swell can also deposit sediment and create beaches and sand dunes.


For sailors, understanding the direction of the wind and swell is crucial to navigating the open waters. They use a unique system of true degrees with north at 0 or 360 degrees and then moving clockwise to east at 90 degrees, south at 180 degrees, and west at 270 degrees. When sailors report wind or swell direction, they report it as the direction the wind or swell is “coming from,” not the direction it’s headed.

Sailors also take into account the swell period, which is the time it takes for successive wave crests to pass a stationary point. The swell period is often overlooked but plays a significant role in the eventual size of a swell. The longer the swell period, the more energy the wind has transferred into the ocean. Long-period swells are able to sustain more energy as they travel great distances across the ocean and are less steep so they can easily pass through opposing winds and seas. Conversely, short-period swells are steeper as they travel across the ocean and are more susceptible to decay from opposing winds and seas.

Swell travels as a group in the form of wave trains. As the wave train moves forward, the wave in the front will slow down and drop back to the rear, similar to a rotating conveyor belt that is also moving forward. The speed of a swell or wave train can be calculated by multiplying the swell period times 1.5. For example, a swell or wave train with a period of 20 seconds will be traveling at 30 knots in deep water.

Long-period waves move faster than short-period waves, so they will be the first to arrive at a particular location. These initial waves are known as forerunners, and they contain swell periods of 18 to 20 seconds or more. The main body of the swell containing the peak energy usually follows in the 15- to 17-second range. The swell period will steadily drop during the life cycle of the swell as it arrives at its destination. The farther a swell travels, the greater the separation of arrival time between the forerunners and the peak of the swell. Often the forerunners will only be inches high and are very hard to see with the naked eye. Surfers with a sharp eye can often sense forerunners as the ocean seems to be moving with extra surging and currents.

In conclusion, sailors have a unique system for identifying wind and swell directions, and they use the swell period to understand the eventual size of a swell. Forerunners play a crucial role in predicting the arrival of swells, and understanding the speed and direction of waves is essential for navigating the open waters.

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