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Concept: Gravity wave


Gravity waves (disturbances to the density structure of the atmosphere whose restoring forces are gravity and buoyancy) comprise the principal form of energy exchange between the lower and upper atmosphere. Wave breaking drives the mean upper atmospheric circulation, determining boundary conditions to stratospheric processes, which in turn influence tropospheric weather and climate patterns on various spatial and temporal scales. Despite their recognized importance, very little is known about upper-level gravity wave characteristics. The knowledge gap is mainly due to lack of global, high-resolution observations from currently available satellite observing systems. Consequently, representations of wave-related processes in global models are crude, highly parameterized, and poorly constrained, limiting the description of various processes influenced by them. Here we highlight, through a series of examples, the unanticipated ability of the Day/Night Band (DNB) on the NOAA/NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership environmental satellite to resolve gravity structures near the mesopause via nightglow emissions at unprecedented subkilometric detail. On moonless nights, the Day/Night Band observations provide all-weather viewing of waves as they modulate the nightglow layer located near the mesopause (∼90 km above mean sea level). These waves are launched by a variety of physical mechanisms, ranging from orography to convection, intensifying fronts, and even seismic and volcanic events. Cross-referencing the Day/Night Band imagery with conventional thermal infrared imagery also available helps to discern nightglow structures and in some cases to attribute their sources. The capability stands to advance our basic understanding of a critical yet poorly constrained driver of the atmospheric circulation.

Concepts: Earth, Climate, Atmosphere, Waves, Stratosphere, Gravitational wave, Gravity wave, Water waves


Internal gravity waves are generated as adjustment radiation whenever a sudden change in forcing causes the atmosphere to depart from its large-scale balanced state. Such a forcing anomaly occurs during a solar eclipse, when the Moon’s shadow cools part of the Earth’s surface. The resulting atmospheric gravity waves are associated with pressure and temperature perturbations, which in principle are detectable both at the surface and aloft. In this study, surface pressure and temperature data from two UK sites at Reading and Lerwick are examined for eclipse-driven gravity wave perturbations during the 20 March 2015 solar eclipse over northwest Europe. Radiosonde wind data from the same two sites are also analysed using a moving parcel analysis method, to determine the periodicities of the waves aloft. On this occasion, the perturbations both at the surface and aloft are found not to be confidently attributable to eclipse-driven gravity waves. We conclude that the complex synoptic weather conditions over the UK at the time of this particular eclipse helped to mask any eclipse-driven gravity waves.This article is part of the themed issue ‘Atmospheric effects of solar eclipses stimulated by the 2015 UK eclipse’.

Concepts: Earth, Moon, Lunar eclipse, Eclipse, Ecliptic, Gravity wave, Solar eclipse, Saros cycle


Internal gravity waves, the subsurface analogue of the familiar surface gravity waves that break on beaches, are ubiquitous in the ocean. Because of their strong vertical and horizontal currents, and the turbulent mixing caused by their breaking, they affect a panoply of ocean processes, such as the supply of nutrients for photosynthesis, sediment and pollutant transport and acoustic transmission; they also pose hazards for man-made structures in the ocean. Generated primarily by the wind and the tides, internal waves can travel thousands of kilometres from their sources before breaking, making it challenging to observe them and to include them in numerical climate models, which are sensitive to their effects. For over a decade, studies have targeted the South China Sea, where the oceans' most powerful known internal waves are generated in the Luzon Strait and steepen dramatically as they propagate west. Confusion has persisted regarding their mechanism of generation, variability and energy budget, however, owing to the lack of in situ data from the Luzon Strait, where extreme flow conditions make measurements difficult. Here we use new observations and numerical models to (1) show that the waves begin as sinusoidal disturbances rather than arising from sharp hydraulic phenomena, (2) reveal the existence of >200-metre-high breaking internal waves in the region of generation that give rise to turbulence levels >10,000 times that in the open ocean, (3) determine that the Kuroshio western boundary current noticeably refracts the internal wave field emanating from the Luzon Strait, and (4) demonstrate a factor-of-two agreement between modelled and observed energy fluxes, which allows us to produce an observationally supported energy budget of the region. Together, these findings give a cradle-to-grave picture of internal waves on a basin scale, which will support further improvements of their representation in numerical climate predictions.

Concepts: Fluid dynamics, Climate, Physical oceanography, Observation, Ocean, South China Sea, Waves, Gravity wave


When drinking a cup of coffee under the morning sunshine, you may notice white membranes of steam floating on the surface of the hot water. They stay notably close to the surface and appear to almost stick to it. Although the membranes whiffle because of the air flow of rising steam, peculiarly fast splitting events occasionally occur. They resemble cracking to open slits approximately 1 mm wide in the membranes, and leave curious patterns. We studied this phenomenon using a microscope with a high-speed video camera and found intriguing details: i) the white membranes consist of fairly monodispersed small droplets of the order of 10 μm; ii) they levitate above the water surface by 10 ~ 100 μm; iii) the splitting events are a collective disappearance of the droplets, which propagates as a wave front of the surface wave with a speed of 1 ~ 2 m/s; and iv) these events are triggered by a surface disturbance, which results from the disappearance of a single droplet.

Concepts: Optics, Liquid, Surface tension, Drop, Rainbow, Liquids, Camera, Gravity wave


Meteotsunamis are generated by meteorological events, particularly moving pressure disturbances due to squalls, thunderstorms, frontal passages and atmospheric gravity waves. Relatively small initial sea-level perturbations, of the order of a few centimetres, can increase significantly through multi-resonant phenomena to create destructive events through the superposition of different factors. The global occurrence of meteotsunamis and the different resonance phenomena leading to amplification of meteotsunamis are reviewed. Results from idealized numerical modelling and field measurements from southwest Australia are presented to highlight the relative importance of the different processes. It is shown that the main influence that leads to amplification of the initial disturbance is due to wave shoaling and topographic resonance. Although meteotsunamis are not catastrophic to the extent of major seismically induced basin-scale events, the temporal and spatial occurrence of meteotsunamis are higher than those of seismic tsunamis as the atmospheric disturbances responsible for the generation of meteotsunamis are more common. High-energy events occur only for very specific combinations of resonant effects. The rareness of such combinations is perhaps the main reason why destructive meteotsunamis are exceptional and observed only at a limited number of sites globally.

Concepts: Precipitation, Greek loanwords, Wave, Atmospheric pressure, Typography, Resonance, Waves, Gravity wave


With radar interferometry, the next-generation Surface Water and Ocean Topography satellite mission will improve the measured sea surface height resolution down to 15 km, allowing us to investigate for the first time the global upper ocean variability at the submesoscale range. Here, by analysing shipboard Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler measurements along 137°E in the northwest Pacific of 2004-2016, we show that the observed upper ocean velocities are comprised of balanced geostrophic flows and unbalanced internal waves. The transition length scale, Lt, separating these two motions, is found to depend strongly on the energy level of local mesoscale eddy variability. In the eddy-abundant western boundary current region of Kuroshio, Lt can be shorter than 15 km, whereas Lt exceeds 200 km along the path of relatively stable North Equatorial Current. Judicious separation between the geostrophic and internal wave signals represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the Surface Water and Ocean Topography mission.

Concepts: Water, Fluid dynamics, Physical oceanography, Wave, Pacific Ocean, Waves, Gravity wave, Ocean currents


We propose a novel semi-analytic design strategy for dielectric one-dimensional multilayer biosensors that is based on a relation between the angular sensitivity and the optical power flow of the Bloch surface wave guided by the multilayer. We show that our strategy can be used to optimize both the sensor’s sensitivity and figure-of-merit without the need for extensive numerical parameter sweeps.

Concepts: Optics, Fundamental physics concepts, Type I and type II errors, Sensitivity and specificity, Design, Gravity wave


During its periodic motion, a particle floating at the free surface of a water wave experiences a net drift velocity in the direction of wave propagation, known as the Stokes drift (Stokes 1847 Trans. Camb. Philos. Soc.8, 441-455). More generally, the Stokes drift velocity is the difference between the average Lagrangian flow velocity of a fluid parcel and the average Eulerian flow velocity of the fluid. This paper reviews progress in fundamental and applied research on the induced mean flow associated with surface gravity waves since the first description of the Stokes drift, now 170 years ago. After briefly reviewing the fundamental physical processes, most of which have been established for decades, the review addresses progress in laboratory and field observations of the Stokes drift. Despite more than a century of experimental studies, laboratory studies of the mean circulation set up by waves in a laboratory flume remain somewhat contentious. In the field, rapid advances are expected due to increasingly small and cheap sensors and transmitters, making widespread use of small surface-following drifters possible. We also discuss remote sensing of the Stokes drift from high-frequency radar. Finally, the paper discusses the three main areas of application of the Stokes drift: in the coastal zone, in Eulerian models of the upper ocean layer and in the modelling of tracer transport, such as oil and plastic pollution. Future climate models will probably involve full coupling of ocean and atmosphere systems, in which the wave model provides consistent forcing on the ocean surface boundary layer. Together with the advent of new space-borne instruments that can measure surface Stokes drift, such models hold the promise of quantifying the impact of wave effects on the global atmosphere-ocean system and hopefully contribute to improved climate projections.This article is part of the theme issue ‘Nonlinear water waves’.

Concepts: Fluid dynamics, Coast, Arithmetic mean, Wind, Group velocity, Wind wave, Gravity wave, Water waves


Steady two-dimensional surface capillary-gravity waves in irrotational motion are considered on constant depth. By exploiting the holomorphic properties in the physical plane and introducing some transformations of the boundary conditions at the free surface, new exact relations and equations for the free surface only are derived. In particular, a physical plane counterpart of the Babenko equation is obtained.This article is part of the theme issue ‘Nonlinear water waves’.

Concepts: Surface, Polynomial, Communism, Elementary algebra, Initial value problem, Gravity wave


To investigate changes in the instability of Stokes waves prior to wave breaking in shallow water, pressure data were recorded vertically over the entire water depth, except in the near-surface layer (from 0 cm to -3 cm), in a recirculating channel. In addition, we checked the pressure asymmetry under several conditions. The phase-averaged dynamic-pressure values for the wave-current motion appear to increase compared with those for the wave-alone motion; however, they scatter in the experimental range. The measured vertical distributions of the dynamic pressure were plotted over one wave cycle and compared to the corresponding predictions on the basis of third-order Stokes wave theory. The dynamic-pressure pattern was not the same during the acceleration and deceleration periods. Spatially, the dynamic pressure varies according to the faces of the wave, i.e. the pressure on the front face is lower than that on the rear face. The direction of wave propagation with respect to the current directly influences the essential features of the resulting dynamic pressure. The results demonstrate that interactions between travelling waves and a current lead more quickly to asymmetry.This article is part of the theme issue ‘Nonlinear water waves’.

Concepts: Fundamental physics concepts, Fluid dynamics, Group velocity, Waves, Phase velocity, Wind wave, Gravity wave, Water waves