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Scale comparison of 800-foot-tall wave and skyscraper

An 800-foot-tall wave breaking next to a skyscraper for scale

This simulation shows an 800-foot-tall wave breaking next to a skyscraper for scale. A study by researchers at the University of Washington (UW) has for the first time, recorded an enormous wave breaking miles below the surface in a key bottleneck for global ocean circulation.

In the deep ocean, huge, skyscraper-tall waves can form between layers of water of different densities. These waves transport heat, energy, carbon and nutrients around the globe, and where and how they break is important for the planets climate.

Dense water in Antarctica sinks to the deep Pacific, where it eventually surges through a 25-mile gap in the submarine landscape northeast of Samoa. "Basically the entire South Pacific flow is blocked by this huge submarine ridge," said Matthew Alford, an oceanographer at UW. "The amount of water thats trying to get northward through this gap is just tremendous--6 million cubic meters of water per second, or about 35 Amazon Rivers."

In the summer of 2012, the UW team, led by Alford, went on expedition to the Samoan Passage, a narrow channel in the South Pacific Ocean that funnels water flowing from Antarctica. The team wanted to track the 800-foot-high waves that form atop the flow, three miles below the oceans surface. Their measurements show these giant waves do break, producing mixing 1,000 to 10,000 times that of the surrounding slow-moving water.

The Samoan Passage is important because it mixes so much water, but similar processes happen in other places, Alford said. Better knowledge of deep-ocean mixing could help simulate global currents and place instruments to track any changes.

To read more about this research, see the UW news story Breaking deep-sea waves reveal mechanism for global ocean mixing. (Date of Image: 2013)


Credit: Tom Peacock, MIT/Wide Eye Productions

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