Although weak resonant and near-resonant interactions of weakly nonlinear waves occur over slow timescales, breaking is a fast process, lasting for times comparable to the wave period. However, the turbulence and mixing due to breaking may last for a considerable time after the event. Breaking, which is a transient, two-phase, turbulent, free-surface flow, is the least understood of the surface wave processes. The energy and momentum lost from the wave field in breaking are available to generate turbulence and surface currents, respectively. The air entrained by breaking may, through the associated buoyancy force on the bubbles, be dynamically significant over times comparable to the wave period as the larger bubbles rise and escape through the surface. The sound generated with the breakup of the air into bubbles is perhaps the dominant source of high frequency sound in the ocean, and may be used diagnostically to characterize certain aspects of air–sea interaction. This Figure shows examples of breaking waves in a North Atlantic storm.
Since direct measurements of breaking in the field are so difficult, much of our understanding of breaking comes from laboratory experiments and simple modeling. For example, laboratory experiments and similarity arguments suggest that the rate of energy loss per unit length of the breaking crest of a wave of phase speed c is proportional to rg 1c5, with a proportionality factor that depends on the wave slope, and perhaps other parameters. Attempts are underway to combine such simple modeling along with field measurements of the statistics of breaking fronts to give an estimate of the distribution of dissipation across the wave spectrum. Recent developments in the measurement and modeling of breaking using optical, acoustical microwave and numerical techniques hold the promise of significant progress in the next decade.