Skip directly to content

Riding (and monitoring) the ocean's internal waves

Autonomous instruments that probe the ocean's interior are advancing the study of internal waves, slow waves with amplitudes of tens of meters that propagate below the ocean surface. When these waves break, they mix warm and cold water deep in the ocean.

Observations made by the instruments provide insight into the vertical movement of heat, carbon and nutrients in the ocean. Researchers can use this data to determine how long the deep ocean stores carbon generated from human activities. 

A substantial amount of the ocean's energy is stored in inertial motions, water moving in circles under the influence of the Earth's rotation. Internal waves--those just below the surface--transport the energy in inertial motions, which causes mixing of warm and cool water a mile below the ocean surface.

Researchers study regions where internal waves and large-scale oceanic currents meet to learn more about high energy and mixing activities. One such region is located in the Southern Ocean, where scientists from the University of Washington, Florida State University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography used a fleet of novel autonomous floats programmed to measure vertical profiles of temperature, salinity and ocean currents every 10 days for several years.


  • researcher guides wave monitoring float into the water
Researcher guides float into the water.
Byron Kilbourne and James Girton, University of Washington

Recent Award Highlights

an ice core from the side of the main hole

Prehistoric ice cores help predict future climate

Climate time capsule shows previously hidden interactions between greenhouse gases and climate

Research Areas: Earth & Environment, Polar Locations: California New Hampshire Nevada Oregon
artist's illustration of the prochloroccocus bacteria in a drop of seawater

What diversity lies in a millimeter of ocean water?

One species' multiple subpopulations are a model for understanding marine phytoplankton

Research Areas: Earth & Environment Locations: Hawaii Massachusetts