Copyright ¬© Center for Environmental Visualization| ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
CEV developed visualizations and illustrations working with the Wavechasers team, led by Prof. Matthew Alford, studies "internal gravity waves" beneath the sea surface - these undersea monsters can reach heights taller than a 100 story skyscraper, and break just like the waves you see on beaches.
The sea is full of “internal waves,” subsea cousins of surface waves you’ve seen on beaches. Internal waves move the ocean’s layers up and down tens to hundreds of meters – as high as several Space Needles stacked on top of each other. These waves arise when the wind blows on the ocean’s surface and when tidal currents flow over seafloor bumps. Once created, they can travel across the ocean’s basins, just like surface swells. And – also like surface waves – they can break, which they sometimes do in dramatic turbulent events that mix cold water below with the warm water above it.
This internal-wave-driven mixing turns out to be a vital aspect of the ocean's circulation. We currently believe that without breaking internal waves, the deep sea would be a stagnant, homogenous deep pool of cold water with a very thin warm layer atop it. Since we instead observe a much more gradual decrease in temperature, we conclude that there is mixing in the abyss – and that breaking internal waves lead to much of it. Therefore, internal wave mixing is part of the ``bloodstream” of the ocean, enabling the upward part of the “conveyor belt” circulation by moving cold water upward. And that means that our predictions of climate change have significant uncertainty because we do not fully understand the sources, travel pathways and eventual breaking locations of the internal waves in the sea.
Read more in the Ocean Currents Magazine, School of Oceanography, University of Washington.
Also, see Nature article: The formation and fate of internal waves in the South China Sea