How Waves Are Formed

Waves, especially ocean waves, are often so common that we never usually think about where they come from or how they’re formed. In this article, you’ll be diving into the specifics of the formation of waves, including the various types of waves and where you may find them. 

Depending on the type of wave, there can be various reasons why they’re formed. While most waves, such as those we typically see out in the ocean, are caused by energy transfer within the water (brought on by wind), others may be formed by factors such as underwater disturbances, severe weather, or gravitational pull. 

From here on out, you’ll be taking a closer look at each type of wave, along with the reasons for their formation. Each type will be separated into its subheadings to simplify readability. 

What are Waves?

Before going into detail on the different types of waves and how they’re formed, it's best to have a clear understanding of what waves are in general so that the processes discussed later make sense. 

As discussed earlier, waves are primarily formed by energy traveling through the water, which happens to be the medium in this case. Depending on the medium, there are many other types of waves (i.e., electromagnetic and sound waves).

In all cases, waves transfer energy, not the medium itself, meaning if nothing is in its way, the waves can potentially travel through the whole ocean. 

This movement of energy is what causes waves to move in a circular motion. 

Below is a general overview of an ocean wave. It details the anatomy of a wave, including the crest (highest point)  and trough (lowest point), which will be mentioned several more times throughout the article. 

The anatomy of an ocean wave. The crest and trough can be seen at points A and B, along with definitions of the wave frequency and period. 

What are Wind-Driven/Surface Waves?

Wind-driven waves, otherwise known as surface waves, are the types of waves we’re most familiar with. These waves are the ones that travel continuously along the surface of the ocean until they eventually break over land. 

In the cases of these waves, the wind is the source of energy that, while traveling across the water, creates friction that eventually develops into a wave crest. 

These waves can be found in either smaller lakes or across the open oceans (and their coasts) around the world. 

Small Capillary Waves are Born

Wind-driven/surface waves begin as capillary waves (wavelengths are below 1.7 cm), which are small ripples on the water surface due to slight breezes. The capillary waves provide a source of friction as the wind “grips” onto them and creates larger waves, known as wind waves.

When these small waves are first formed, you have either the surface tension (of the water) or gravity (when the waves are larger) acting as a restoring force to return the water to its calm state. 

Wind Increases in Speed, Creating Larger Waves

When the energy of the wind increases, three factors then come into play that determine the amount of energy and, thus, the overall size of the waves: the wind speed, duration, and the distance over which the wind blows in a straight line. 

Regardless of which factor increases, the overall amount of energy moving through the water increases, and thus, the speed and size of the waves increase as well. 

However, wind-generated waves can only reach a certain size. As the waves grow larger due to increasing energy transfer, they become steeper as well. 

When the wave heights reach over 1/7 the length of their wavelength, the waves will collapse and form whitecaps (a sign of waves breaking). 

Different Types of Hazardous Waves

Unlike wind-driven/surface waves, there are a few other types of waves that are much rarer to see as they only form under specific conditions. However, these waves are usually also much more powerful as they typically contain significantly more energy behind them. 

Here, you’re presented with two types of hazardous waves, storm surges and tsunamis, which will be presented first in general and then specifically at their formation processes. 

What are Storm Surges? 

Storm surges are a series of long waves (waves with long wavelengths) that are formed in the deep waters far from shore. These waves, though starting mild and far from land, can intensify rapidly as they get closer inland, causing a significantly dangerous rise in sea level. 

Storm surges, per their namesake, occur due to the presence of strong storms and other severe weather phenomenon, such as hurricanes. The surges are due to the strong winds and pressure that accompany storms, the former of which can push water onshore

Many factors, such as the orientation of the storm track relative to the shoreline, the attributes of the storm (intensity, speed, size, etc.), and bathymetry (the depth of the water), go into play when determining the approximate amplitude/severity of a storm surge. 

When measuring storm surges, we look at how high the tide has gone over its normal predicted astronomical tide, meaning that anything above the normal tide level can be considered part of a storm surge. When you combine the two types of tides, you get the total observed seawater level, otherwise known as the storm tide. 

Because astronomical tides are highest during a new or full moon (details of which we’ll look at later), the highest storm tides are observed when there’s a powerful storm during a new or full moon. 

What are Tsunamis?

Another potentially even more devastating and usually much larger type of wave that is also quite rarely seen is tsunamis. 

Tsunamis are caused by various types of disturbances (typically underwater, such as earthquakes or underwater volcano eruptions, but sometimes also caused by landslides) that displace a tremendous amount of water. This causes the water to then spread out and away from the epicenter in a continuous series of waves. 

You can picture what the phenomenon looks like if you imagine the ripples that occur when you toss a pebble into a pond. Just like how the ripples spread out and away from the place where the pebble hit the water, tsunamis also move in a similar pattern except, of course, on a much larger scale. 

Like storm surges, tsunamis start mild out in the far ocean but become gradually more intense and higher as they approach land, where the ocean becomes shallower. 

The waves’ speed depends on the ocean’s depth instead of how far the waves have traveled from the epicenter. 

In this case, the speed of the waves is inverse to ocean depth, meaning the deeper the ocean is, the faster the waves travel, and vice versa. And, of course, when the waves slow down, the amount of energy gathered over the entire distance will fall onto a much smaller volume, becoming the extremely high waves we usually associate with tsunamis. 

Both tsunamis and storm surges are the types of waves that rapidly roll onto shores like enormous sea level rises, as opposed to the typical wind-driven waves we see that crash down onto the shores. 

What are Gravitational Waves? 

The final type of wave discussed in this article is gravitational waves, otherwise known as tidal waves or just tides for short. 

The reason for these waves is due to the sun and moon’s gravity pulling on the Earth’s surface. It’s because of this that people can accurately predict the rise and fall of these waves depending on the time of day. 

Because tidal waves are dependent on the gravitational pull of much larger and farther away objects, their periods (the time needed for a wave to travel its entire length) and wavelengths are also much longer. They originate in the ocean and travel towards the shore throughout the day, where they’ll look like the rise and fall of the ocean surface. 

Depending on which part of the wave hits the shore, people may see it as either high tide (at the wave’s crest) or low tide (at the wave’s trough), with the range between the two being the tidal range. 


Although people often don’t think much of waves as they repeatedly come crashing onto the shores, there is quite a large variety of them, each with their own form and formation process. Hopefully, this article has proven just how much of the natural world there still is to discover around us. 

Edward Zhang

Written by Edward Zhang

Edward is an accomplished author with a deep passion for the ocean. He holds a masters in marine science degree at the University of New South Wales and a bachelors in biology from Stony Brook University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recommended posts

May 29, 2024
How To Qualify for Olympic Surfing 2024

Mark your calendars for July 27, 2024! A wild storm of surfers is headed towards Tahiti to conquer the Teahupoo waves. Due to its distinct location, this is going to be the most-watched surfing event in history. With the qualifying events finally over, these champions are more than ever determined to showcase their skills to […]

Read More
February 19, 2024
Maine Surf Guide

While there are several wave fields still undiscovered, Maine can still offer some of the best conditions for visiting tourists to catch that perfect wave. In this article, we’ll take a look at why you might want to visit Maine, the best times to surf, and the best places to check out on your next […]

Read More
February 14, 2024
How To Choose the Best Surf Camp in 8 Steps

Surf camps have a certain appeal. They’re ideal places to learn surfing, especially for solo travelers who want to meet people and socialize in a friendly environment. However, surf camps are springing up in every nook and cranny. You’ll find plenty with an ocean at almost every corner of the planet. The increased numbers make […]

Read More
February 12, 2024
Alaska Surf Guide 

If you’re a fan of the outdoors in general and dislike crowds, Alaska might be your go-to place to surf. But with the various hazards and difficulties getting there, it can be a somewhat tedious trip. In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn all about the wonders and potential dangers of surfing in Alaska.  With its […]

Read More
January 30, 2024
Are Surf Camps Worth It? The Pros and Cons

Surfing is a popular sport, especially with many health fanatics who consider it a great way to keep in shape. If you’re a beginner and want to hone this skill, you might consider joining a surf camp. But, is it worth it? This article will take a deep dive into the essentials of surfing camps […]

Read More
January 30, 2024
Georgia Surf Guide 

If you’re living along the East Coast, it could be a bit difficult to travel across the country to Hawaii or California for that perfect surfing spot. Georgia might not be your first choice when it comes to surfing, but with the warmer waters, beautiful surrounding islands, and stunning wildlife, there are quite a few […]

Read More
January 19, 2024
9 Things You Should Know Before Learning How to Surf

Watching surfers riding huge waves certainly inspires us to learn the sport as quickly as possible to impress others, just as we were fascinated. It’s a sport like no other, and the best part is that it gives us a chance to master the ocean, which scares even the best of us. However, remember that […]

Read More
January 15, 2024
7 Weirdest Waves That’ll Blow Your Mind

One of the best things about ocean surfing is that you’ll never know what you’re going to get. It's unpredictable and sometimes too fast or too big for you. Nevertheless, other waves are so wacky and weird that they will level up your excitement in a different way. From massive wipeouts underwater to being thrown […]

Read More
January 7, 2024
12 Best Places for Sandboarding Around the World

With all the sports out there, sandboarding can easily be considered one of the most unique and exciting ones there is to offer. It might be thought that this sport is relatively new, but in reality, it has been around for centuries and is thought to have been started by the Egyptians. Today, it has […]

Read More
1 2 3 14
Find your ideal surfing destination with Surf Spots. Connect with the waves and brace yourself for an experience of a lifetime.



Contact Us


All rights reserved by Surf Spots