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Nature. 2002 May 2;417(6884):58-63.

Distribution of breaking waves at the ocean surface.

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093-0213, USA.


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 gas, 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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