Wind wave model

Wind wave model
NOAA Wavewatch III 120-hour Forecast for the North Atlantic

In fluid dynamics, wind wave modeling describes the effort to depict the sea state and predict the evolution of the energy of wind waves using numerical techniques. These simulations consider atmospheric wind forcing, nonlinear wave interactions, and frictional dissipation, and they output statistics describing wave heights, periods, and propagation directions for regional seas or global oceans. Such wave hindcasts and wave forecasts are extremely important for commercial interests on the high seas.[1] For example, the shipping industry requires guidance for operational planning and tactical seakeeping purposes.[1]

For the specific case of predicting wind wave statistics on the ocean, the term ocean surface wave model is used.

Other applications, in particular coastal engineering, have led to the developments of wind wave models specifically designed for coastal applications.


Historical overview

Early forecasts of the sea state were created manually based upon empirical relationships between the present state of the sea, the expected wind conditions, the fetch/duration, and the direction of the wave propagation.[2] Alternatively, the swell part of the state has been forecasted as early as 1920 using remote observations.[3]

During the 1950s and 1960s, much of the theoretical groundwork necessary for numerical descriptions of wave evolution was laid. For forecasting purposes, it was realized that the random nature of the sea state was best described by a spectral decomposition in which the energy of the waves was attributed to as many wave trains as necessary, each with a specific direction and period. This approach allowed to make combined forecasts of wind seas and swells. The first numerical model based on the spectral decomposition of the sea state was operated in 1956 by the French Weather Service, and focused on the North Atlantic.[4] The 1970s saw the first operational, hemispheric wave model: the spectral wave ocean model (SWOM) at the Fleet Numerical Oceanography Center.[5]

First generation wave models did not consider nonlinear wave interactions. Second generation models, available by the early 1980s, parameterized these interactions. They included the “coupled hybrid” and “coupled discrete” formulations.[6] Third generation models explicitly represent all the physics relevant for the development of the sea state in two dimensions. The wave modeling project (WAM), an international effort, led to the refinement of modern wave modeling techniques during the decade 1984-1994.[6] Improvements included two-way coupling between wind and waves, assimilation of satellite wave data, and medium-range operational forecasting.

Wind wave models are used in the context of a forecasting or hindcasting system. Differences in model results arise, with decreasing order of importance, from differences in wind and sea ice forcing, differences in parameterizations of physical processes, the use of data assimilation and associated methods, the numerical techniques used to solve the wave energy evolution equation.

General strategy


A wave model requires as initial conditions information describing the current state of the sea. An analysis of the sea or ocean can be created through data assimilation, where observations such as buoy or satellite altimeter measurements are combined with a background guess from a previous forecast or climatology to create the best estimate of the current conditions.


The sea state is described as a spectrum; the sea surface can be decomposed into waves of varying frequencies using the principle of superposition. The waves are also separated by their direction of propagation. The model domain size can range from regional to the global ocean. Smaller domains can be nested within a global domain to provide higher resolution in a region of interest. The sea state evolves according to physical equations, which include wave propagation / advection, and a source function which allows for wave energy to be augmented or diminished. The source function has at least three terms: wind forcing, nonlinear transfer, and dissipation by whitecapping.[6] Wind data are typically provided from a separate atmospheric model from an operational weather forecasting center.

For intermediate water depths the effect of bottom friction should also be added.[7] At ocean scales, the dissipation of swells - without breaking- is a very important term.[8]


The output of a wind wave model is a description of the wave spectra, with amplitudes associated with each frequency and propagation direction. Results are typically summarized by the significant wave height, which is the average height of the one-third largest waves, and the period and propagation direction of the dominant wave.

Coupled models

Wind waves also act to modify atmospheric properties through frictional drag of near-surface winds and heat fluxes.[9] Two-way coupled models allow the wave activity to feed back upon the atmosphere.



The operational wave forecasting systems at NOAA are based on the WAVEWATCH III model.[10] This system has a global domain of approximately 100 km resolution, with nested regional domains for the northern hemisphere oceanic basins at approximately 25 km resolution. Physics includes wave field refraction, nonlinear resonant interactions, sub-grid representations of unresolved islands, and dynamically updated ice coverage. Wind data is provided from the GDAS data assimilation system for the GFS weather model. Up to 2008, the model was limited to regions outside the surf zone where the waves are not strongly impacted by shallow depths.[11]

The model can handle the effects of currents on waves from its early design by Hendrik Tolman in the 1990s, and is now extended for nearshore applications.

Other models

The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) has incorporated the WAM wave model as part of its ensemble forecasting system.[12] This model includes 30 frequency bins, 24 propagation directions, and an average spatial resolution of 40 km.

Wind wave forecasts are issued regionally by Environment Canada.[13]

Regional wave predictions are also produced by universities, such as Texas A&M University’s use of the SWAN model to forecast waves in the Gulf of Mexico.[14]

Other wind wave models include the U.S. Navy Standard Surf Model (NSSM).[15]

The private sector is also active in producing wind wave simulations and surf forecasts. For example, Oceanweather Inc. provides global operational forecasts and hindcasts of the sea state.[16]


Comparison of the wave model forecasts with observations is essential for characterizing model deficiencies and identifying areas for improvement. In-situ observations are obtained from buoys, ships and oil platforms. Altimetry data from satellites, such as GEOSAT and TOPEX, can also be used to infer the characteristics of wind waves.

Hindcasts of wave models during extreme conditions also serves as a useful test bed for the models.[17]


A retrospective analysis, or reanalysis, combines all available observations with a physical model to describe the state of a system over a time period of decades. Wind waves are a part of both the NCEP Reanalysis[18] and the ERA-40 from the ECMWF.[19] Such resources permit the creation of monthly wave climatologies, and can track the variation of wave activity on interannual and multi-decadal time scales. During the northern hemisphere winter, the most intense wave activity is located in the central North Pacific south of the Aleutians, and in the central North Atlantic south of Iceland. During the southern hemisphere winter, intense wave activity circumscribes the pole at around 50°S, with 5 m significant wave heights typical in the southern Indian Ocean.[19]


  1. ^ a b Cox, Andrew T., and Vincent J. Cardone (2002). "20 Years Of Operational Forecasting At Oceanweather". 7th International Workshop on Wave Hindcasting and Forecasting October 21–25, 2002, Banff, Alberta, Canada. Retrieved 2008-11-21. 
  2. ^ Wittmann, Paul and Mike Clancy, "Thirty Years of Operational Ocean Wave Forecasting at Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center", Symposium on the 50th Anniversary of Operational Numerical Weather Prediction, 14–17 June 2004, University of Maryland
  3. ^ Robert Montagne, The swell forecasting service in Morocco (In French), 1922, Annales Hydrographiques, pp. 157-186. This paper describes the use of the method published by Gain in the same journal (1918) which combines a classification of North Atlantic Storms with the use of observations in Azores and Portugal to forecast the swells in Morocco.
  4. ^ Gelci, R., H. Cazalé, J. Vassal (1957) Sea state forecasting. The spectral method (In French), Bulletin d'information du Comité d'Océanographie et d'Etude des Côtes, Vol. 9 (1957), pp. 416-435.
  5. ^ "Wave Modeling", Oceanweather Inc
  6. ^ a b c Komen, Gerbrand, "The Wave Modeling Group, a historical perspective"
  7. ^ Ardhuin, F., O'Reilly, W. C., Herbers, T. H. C., & Jessen, P. F. (2003). Swell transformation across the continental shelf. part I: Attenuation and directional broadening. J. Phys. Oceanogr. , 33 , 1921-1939.
  8. ^ Ardhuin, F., Chapron, B., & Collard, F. (2009). Observation of swell dissipation across oceans. Geophys. Res. Lett. , 36 . URL
  9. ^ Bender, L.C., 1996: "Modification of the Physics and Numerics in a Third-Generation Ocean Wave Model". J. Atmos. Oceanic Technol., 13, 726–750.
  10. ^ Tolman, H. L., "Wavewatch III Model Description"
  11. ^ Tolman, 2002g: User manual and system documentation of WAVEWATCH-III version 2.22. NOAA / NWS / NCEP / MMAB Technical Note 222, 133 pp.
  12. ^ "The Ocean Wave Model", European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts
  13. ^ "Operational Model Forecasts", Environment Canada
  14. ^ "Surf's Up: Professor Using Models To Predict Huge Waves", ScienceDaily, Feb. 23, 2005
  15. ^ "Validation Test Report for the Navy Standard Surf Model", US Naval Research Lab
  16. ^ "Introduction", Oceanweather Inc
  17. ^ Cardone, V., R. Jensen, D. Resio, V. Swail, and A. Cox, 1996: "Evaluation of Contemporary Ocean Wave Models in Rare Extreme Events: The “Halloween Storm” of October 1991 and the “Storm of the Century” of March 1993". J. Atmos. Oceanic Technol., 13, 198–230.
  18. ^ Cox, A., V. Cardone, and V. Swail, "Evaluation Of NCEP-NCAR Reanalysis Project Marine Surface Wind Products For A Long Term North Atlantic Wave Hindcast"
  19. ^ a b Caires, S., A. Sterl, G. Burgers, and G. Komen, ERA-40, "Forty-year European Re-Analysis of the Global Atmosphere; Ocean wave product validation and analysis"

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