Chapter 10: Waves

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter you should be able to:

  • identify the parts of a basic wave
  • define the terminology used to describe the motion of a wave (i.e. period, frequency, speed etc.)
  • explain the circular motion of water particles involved in wave motion
  • explain the difference between deep water waves and shallow water waves
  • identify the factors that influence wave speed in deep and shallow waves
  • identify the factors that determine the energy of wind-generated waves
  • define the concept of restoring force
  • define significant wave height
  • explain the creation of ocean swell
  • define the concepts of destructive, constructive and mixed interference
  • explain why waves break as they approach shore
  • explain the differences in the different types of breakers, and how the bottom topography impacts breaker type
  • explain why waves approach parallel to shore, and why waves are larger off of points and smaller in bays
  • explain how tsunamis are formed, and how they behave in the ocean

Waves come in many shapes and sizes; a 100 foot wave might be a surfer’s dream, but a ship captain’s nightmare. What was the largest wave ever recorded? 50 feet? 100 feet? Not even close. That record belongs to a wave created in Lituya Bay, Alaska, on July 9, 1958 (Figure 10.1). On that day, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake caused a massive rockslide that slid down a mountainside and into the headwaters of the bay. The rockslide created a splash wave that was high enough to flatten vegetation up to 1722 ft (525 m) above sea level! The wave then moved through the narrow bay towards the sea, destroying a number of fishing boats along the way. Miraculously, a father and son on one fishing boat were carried above the trees by the wave, and survived to tell the story. This is by far the largest wave, a megatsunami, ever reliably recorded. The waves we will discuss in this chapter may not be quite that dramatic, but it is still important to know how they form, how they are propagated, and what happens to them as they interact with the shore.


Figure 10.1 A view of Lituya Bay taken a few weeks after the 1958 megatsunami. The rockslide occurred in the mountains at the head of the bay, producing the wave that them moved through the bay towards the sea (D.J. Miller, United States Geological Survey, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).


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