Edward B. Thornton, James J. Galvin, Frank L. Bub, David P. Richardson


The sight and sound of breaking waves and surf is so familiar and enjoyable that we tend to forget how little we really understand about them. Why is it, that compared to other branches of wave studies our knowledge of breaking waves is so empirical and inexact? The reason must lie partly in the difficulty of finding a precise mathematical description of a fluid flow that is in general nonlinear and time-dependent. The fluid accelerations can no longer be assumed t o be small compared t o gravity, as in Stokes's theory for periodic waves and the theory of cnoidal waves in shallow water, nor is the particle velocity any longer small compared to the phase velocity. The aim of this paper is to bring together s ome recent contributions to the calculation both of steep symmetric waves and of time-dependent surface waves. These have a bearing on the behaviour of whitecaps in deep water and of surf in the breaker zone . Since spilling breakers in gently shoaling water closely resemble solitary waves, we begin with the description of solitary waves of limiting amplitude, then discuss steep waves of arbitrary height. The observed intermittency of whitecaps is discussed in terms of the energy maximum, as a function of wave steepness, In Sections 6 and 7 a simpler description of steady symmetric waves is proposed, using an asymptotic expression for the flow near the wave crest. Finally we describe a new numerical technique (MEL, or mixed Eulerian-Lagrangian) with which it has been found possible to follow the development of periodic waves past the point when overturning takes place. Measurement of waves, and vertical and horizontal water particle velocities were made of spilling, plunging and surging breakers at sandy beaches in the vicinity of Monterey, California. The measured breaking waves, derived characteristically from swell-type waves, can be described as highly nonlinear. Spectra and cross spectra were calculated between waves and velocities. Secondary waves were noted visually and by the strong harmonics in the spectra. The strength of the harmonics is related to the beach steepness, wave height and period. The phase difference between waves and horizontal velocities indicates the unstable crest of the wave leads the velocities on the average by 5-20 degrees. Phase measurements between wave gauges in a line perpendicular to the shore show breaking waves to be frequency nondispersive indicating phase-coupling of the various wave components. The coherence squared values between the sea surface elevation and the horizontal water particle velocity were high in all runs, ranging above 0.8 at the peak of the spectra. The high coherence suggests that most of the motion in the body of breaking waves is wave-induced and not turbulent.


breaking waves; wave kinematics

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