Waves are incredibly powerful. The theoretical energy created by waves off the coast of the United States is enough to power nearly two-thirds of the country. When you surf those waves, you’re harnessing some of that energy yourself, and riding an immense force that could power millions of smartphones.
But how are surfing waves created? What is happening below and above the surface to generate such immense force and give surfers the most important tool of their trade?
What Forces Create Surfing Waves?
Ocean waves are caused by high-energy forces interacting with the water. The energy can be transmitted through a number of different means, but wind is the main one.
Wind-driven waves, as the name suggests, are waves that carry the energy of the wind. The wind blows across the surface of the ocean and this creates friction, producing a crest as the wave moves toward the shore.
The size and quality of the ocean wave will depend on the strength of the wind and the length of time that it blows.
Think of it in the context of a puddle sitting on the street. If you were to blow on the puddle, it would ripple a little and then settle down.
If you were to blow harder and for longer, you’d create more ripples, and as that friction intensifies, and the water rolls, the ripples would continue for longer and grow bigger. If a strong wind blows into the puddle, it’ll have an even bigger effect.
The difference with waves is that all of this is happening out in the open ocean and the constant wind and unpredictable weather patterns create everything from mild and weak waves to massive concussive crests like those seen at Nazare, one of the world’s best-loved surfing destinations.
What Else Impacts Ocean Waves?
There are several other factors involved in the creation of waves. The direction of the wind (onshore, offshore) will have as much of an impact as the strength, and you also have to think about the topography of the ocean floor.
It’s why some areas, including Nazare, are known for producing consistently big waves while others are better known for producing slab waves.
Storms and earthquakes can also produce massive waves. These natural events create the immense energy that waves need to form, and they can trigger these interactions many miles away from the initial source of the event.