Waves Across the Pacific

Claudia Schreier is a sophomore at the University of Delaware. She majors in Chemical Engineering with a minor in Marine Sciences. Ms. Schreier’s essay emerged from an assignment in an undergraduate “Introduction to Ocean Science” class taught by Drs. K. Billups and A. Muenchow in the fall of 2020. ~A. Muenchow, Editor

The 1967 documentary “Waves Across the Pacific” highlights some of the first uses of high-tech measuring tools and novel techniques to discover how waves move across the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Walter Munk and his research team studied how wave energy from storms off Antarctica is lost as waves move across the equator towards Alaska. This was the first time that anyone collected and reported data for wave processes on a global scale.

Dr. Munk in 1963 (UC San Diego Library)

The vessel that the team used for this expedition was fascinating; it is called FLIP, and it is a mobile floating instrument platform standing 355 feet tall, providing both the space and stability for the laboratory and its equipment. Waves originating from Antarctica reached New Zealand, and then moved farther in every direction within the Pacific Ocean. Recording stations were located in New Zealand, Samoa, Palmyra (an uninhabited equatorial atoll), Hawaii, and Alaska. In the North Pacific without suitable islands between Hawaii and Alaska, FLIP was used for wave measurements. Dr. Munk’s headquarters and central wave station for the experiment was in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Floating Instrument Platform (Smithsonian Ocean)

Dr. Munk originally hypothesized that most of the wave energy coming from Antarctica would be scattered in the equatorial Trade Wind regions, therefore preventing most Antarctic waves from reaching the North Pacific. However, the data revealed little energy loss as the waves crossed the equator. The team discovered, though, that wave attenuation, or the loss of energy, results from interactions of waves from the same storm near its generation region off Antarctica only. Furthermore, the interactions between such waves weakened as they traveled away from the generation region through wave dispersion. This means that waves of different frequencies can travel at different speeds, therefore sorting them, because long waves move faster than shorter ones. Because of this data and new understanding, Dr. Munk could predict surfing conditions in Hawaii from prior observations off Samoa! The data and methodology from this experiment became the cornerstone of many subsequent studies to predict waves.

Recording stations from the study (Munk 2013)

The documentary film captured not only research methods but also life in the 1960s. I appreciated this look back in time, and it got me thinking about women in ocean sciences. In the film, all of the research scientists were men, and no women participated in the project whatsoever. The scientific community has come a long way since then, with more women participating and leading in both science and technology, as well as leading their fields, than ever before. The film helped me to realize that my interest in science and the opportunities to pursue a career within it has been aided by the efforts of countless women who have come before me.

This documentary also made me hopeful in a curious way that I did not expect from a marine science documentary. Dr. Munk was unsure about many things in this study, including the novel technology, remote measuring locations, and even the validity of the experiment itself. Amassing over 10 million data points, he found both the purpose and the results he was seeking for this research in the face of uncertainty. This documentary gave me a fresh take on ocean sciences, and it does more than just explain the brilliant research done in the 1960s: there are still many things we do not know about the world, but with the spirit and drive of Dr. Munk, there is no limit to what can be discovered.

A link to the film: https://waltermunkfoundation.org/uncategorized/waves-across-the-pacific/

2 responses to “Waves Across the Pacific

  1. Thank you; has anyone given any thought to the propagation of waves caused by the record of the long run out landslides that have occurred within the Hawaiian island chain? In 1994 BBC Horizon produced The Runaway Mountain https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1607061/ which centred upon the prospect of a future occurrence, and at that time I produced a short paper outlining my concerns about what I felt are clear signs of evidence of the results of a previous event on the West coast of the United States, which I gleaned from reading; Geologic Guidebook of the San Francisco Bay Counties, Bulletin 154, Division of Mines 1951, My short outline for a book came to nothing but it is believed to have prompted the production of the two movies; Deep Impact, & Armageddon. Such is life. My reason for highlighting this today is that such research needs to be kept in mind, as Kilauea is passing through a change in both the structure of the caldera and eruption of magma; and as such might produce another event. Bear in mind that the BBC Horizon program ended with the comment;” It is anyone’s guess when the next event will occur”. Food for thought?

  2. Hi Claudia. Nice job on the article!

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