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  • What Is a Swell in the Ocean?

    The ocean world is a vast, restless wilderness ceaselessly roiled by waves. A swell born in featureless brine might travel hundreds of miles to break against a shore.
    What Is a Swell in the Ocean?

    Birth of a Wave

    Wind creates most of the waves on the ocean. Friction between the air and the sea surface, transferring energy from wind to water, typically generates wave motion. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that "waves are created by energy passing through water, causing it to move in a circular motion. However, water does not actually travel in waves. Waves transmit energy, not water, across the ocean and if not obstructed by anything, they have the potential to travel across an entire ocean basin." 

    Chaotic Waves

    Heavy wind, as in a storm, creates a confused bed of superimposed waves called a "sea." The size of a wind-blown wave depends basically on how much energy the air transfers to the water; this is impacted by factors like wind velocity and distance.


    Waves flow from the "generating area"--the wind source--in the same direction the air was blowing. Even after the winds die, the waves continue sloughing where they were directed and become more regular as they travel. These long-distance, stable waves are "swells."

    The size of a wave depends on the wind speed, wind duration and the area over which the wind is blowing. The biggest waves generally occur where there are large expanses of open water. The smallest waves, less than 1 foot high, are called ripples.



    Swells can travel great distances across the ocean. Because waves don't lose much energy traveling over deep water, they can move mostly unchanged unless countered by a stronger swell from another direction or until they hit the shore.

    Other Swell Sources

    While wind is the main generating force for swells, long-distance waves can also be prompted by seismic activity, volcanic eruption and tidal activity. These waves can sometimes be very big indeed, especially when they encounter shallow waters. Tsunamis, or seismic sea waves, are not particularly noticeable as swells in the open ocean--they have a low crest and a long wavelength--but can sometimes approach 100 feet in height when hitting a coastline.

    Waves are also caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon. These waves are long-period waves called tidal waves. Tides are actually the biggest waves on the planet.  


    Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

    Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

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