Revealing the Deep Secrets of Deepwater Waves

Scientists hope their study of 1,600-foot underwater waves can help improve climate modeling

Mark A. Johnson/Corbis

Beneath the ocean, you can find underwater hotels, even underwater volcanoes. But what about 1,600-foot-tall waves? Those are underwater, too, and a new study has revealed a few more secrets of these giant waves.

Underwater swells in the South China Sea distribute heat to the ocean depths and help marine life navigate waters, reports Shaunacy Ferro for mental_floss. The waves are the subject of a huge international research project called IWISE (Internal Waves in Straits Experiment) aimed at figuring out how huge waves form and dissipate in the deep.

To study the waves, scientists first had to figure out how to make accurate measurements in turbulent waters. They used a whole range of instruments like buoys, boats and even autonomous underwater vehicles to collect data on the water’s salinity, temperature, speed, and turbulence.

Internal waves

When the team combined their measurements, they were surprised by the results. Not only can huge internal waves be identified at all times of year, but they’re more intense than expected. The waves produce “some of the most intense mixing ever observed in the deep ocean,” says Thomas Peacock, a lead author of the study, in a release.

Peacock and his team were also able to answer a question about underwater waves that’s vexed scientists for years: do waves build as they spread or start at full speed from their point of origin? Mystery solved — underwater waves grow larger as they spread.

So what’s the point of studying waves that will never be seen by the majority of humans? It turns out that the project could impact all humans…a better understanding of the movements of the deep ocean could help scientists make better models of climates (and climate change).

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