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Doin' the Wave

Doin' the wave, on this Moment of Science.

So you're standing at the shore, it's a beautiful day, and the waves are rolling in.

No, wait, I take that back. It's a cold, miserable day and the waves are rolling in.

Come to think of it, no matter when you go, the waves are rolling in. The ocean doesn't seem to take a break. What's causing that?

Those waves hitting the sand actually begin far out at sea. And it doesn't take much to get them going. A little wind will do the trick.

First the wind blows over the surface of the water, generating the little ripples you can see just by blowing across a pan full of water. If that's all that happens, the ripples merely shimmer around on the surface.

However, a stronger wind can cause these little ripples to merge with other ripples and become larger. Eventually these combinations grow large enough to become what most folks would call a wave.

Small waves have the ability to combine with other waves that have a similar frequency. "Frequency" here just means the time it takes for the crest of a wave to pass and the next one to take its place. It's pretty much a coincidence when one wave happens to meet another that matches its frequency. However, once you have a match, the two combine to form a single, larger wave.

Keep up this process to see how even a moderate amount of wind can make waves.

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