Ocean surface waves are the most common oceanographic phenomena that are known to the casual observer. They can at once be the source of inspiration and primal fear. It is remarkable that the complex, random wave field of a storm-lashed sea can be studied and modeled using well-developed theoretical concepts. Many of these concepts are based on linear or weakly nonlinear approximations to the full nonlinear dynamics of ocean waves. Early contributors to these theories included such luminaries as Cauchy, Poisson, Stokes, Lagrange, Airy, Kelvin and Rayleigh. Many of the current challenges in the study of ocean surface waves are related to nonlinear processes which are not yet well understood. These include dynamical coupling between the atmosphere and the ocean, wave–wave interactions, and wave breaking.
For the purposes of this article, surface waves are considered to extend from low frequency swell from distant storms at periods of 10 s or more and wavelengths of hundreds of meters, to capillary waves with wavelengths of millimeters and frequencies of O(10) Hz. In between are wind waves with lengths of O(1–100)m and periods of O(1–10) s. See Figure shows a spectrum of surface waves measured from the Research Platform FLIP off the coast of Oregon. The spectrum, Φ, shows the distribution of energy in the wave field as a function of frequency. The wind wave peak at approximately 0.13 Hz is well separated from the swell peak at approximately 0.06 Hz.
Ocean surface waves play an important role in air–sea interaction. Momentum from the wind goes into both surface waves and currents. Ultimately the waves are dissipated either by viscosity or breaking, giving up their momentum to currents. Surface waves affect upper-ocean mixing through both wave breaking and their role in the generation of Langmuir circulations. This breaking and mixing influences the temperature of the ocean surface and thus the thermodynamics of air–sea interaction. Surface waves impose significant structural loads on ships and other structures. Remote sensing of the ocean surface, from local to global scales, depends on the surface wave field.