July 2017 Reflection

Sitting on the beach, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean last week, the question arose: Where do the waves start?  The waves are constant, and their rhythm can soothe a baby to sleep. Of course, not just a baby but anyone who slows down enough to allow the regular beat of the waves meeting land to lead one to slumber.  But the regularity of the waves can also lead to a question, many questions in fact. As we sat, sun drenched and relaxed, the question came again: where do the waves start?  One never knows where a question can take you, and this one was no different as you’ll see.

Turns out, after some digging with Mrs. Google, that waves are primarily formed by the wind working its ways on the water of the open ocean. Waves are carriers of the kinetic energy created by the wind.  Underwater volcanos or earthquakes, or severe surface storms, also cause waves to form, often quite dangerous and destructive waves. However, all waves are carriers of kinetic energy.  The energy causes the surface water to rotate in a circular motion. For the most part, the water that comprises the wave at any given time stays in the same place, passing the energy forward.  In the open ocean this is rather uneventful, but as the movement approaches land the ever more compressed space between the surface and the bottom compresses the energy until the wave structured collapses (crashes) onto land.

If you have ever been out in the surf, using a boogie board or your body or a surf board, you know the power of the water as the energy that has traveled for so many miles crashes into your body or propels you forward. That power is varied each day, depending on lots of conditions such as the warmth of the water, of the air, the strength of the wind, the power of any recent storms, etc. The day on which the question emerged was a day when the waves were quite powerful, moving the life guards to caution everyone to stay close to the shore.  Some people were enticed to chance the power of those waves, earning them an ever increasingly shrill whistle and annoyed arm motions from those same lifeguards.

In these days in which energy, its production, transportation and use are so central to our political and economic discussions, it is rather amazing that the tremendous power of the earth’s oceans, a renewable power, has not been tapped sufficiently. Some have tried to harness this power.  One way that has been explored with some success is to capture the energy of tidal patterns.  This past week, standing in the surf, one could feel the power of the undercurrent, as the water receded back to the ocean after crashing.  This powerful undertow can be a source of power if it can be directed into energy-producing turbines. This has been done in some places, such as Nova Scotia and British Columbia, with some success.  Engineers have also experimented with capturing the kinetic energy that ocean waves carry. All attempts to capture wave energy are extremely challenging as you can read here.  But the idea is worth pursuing as wave and tidal energy are renewable, like solar and wind.

Any human intervention to capture the power of the earth’s ocean waves and tidal currents comes with some impact to various ecosystems, so it is critical that any intervention be vetted by all interested parties, and that those “parties” not able to represent themselves be respected in their integrity and beauty. Just as the lifeguards directed those of us on the beach last week to respect the power of the ocean’s dynamic movement, we ought to be directed by a generous commitment to preserving the integrity of the ecosystems that depend on a health ocean environment.  Our desire for energy ought not be satisfied by the destruction of species or the ecological communities within which we all live.

Where do the oceans waves start?  Good question. A question that got us to reflect on both the nature of ocean waves and the possibility for energy for human living.  The important take away here, though, is that the question emerged in the calming caress of the ocean’s waves gently (and sometimes not so gently) caressing the sands of the Jersey shore. Do such questions occur to us as we race through our busy lives, making sure we answer emails, check social media, run our children from one activity to the next, make sure our parents are doing ok in their later years, insuring that we’ve accomplished all that we need to accomplish to satisfy our boss?  Can we expect anyone to think about the beauty and intricacy of waves when they are so consumed with worry about getting done all that needs to be done?

My wish for you is the time to slow down, put your smart phone away, and if you can, sit by the ocean. If you cannot, walk to your local park, watch the squirrels at work, or sit by a burbling stream in a state park, or enjoy the riot of weeds that threatens to swallow up the abandoned lot near your home.  The natural world is an amazing source of wonder and the questions that wonder generates.  I wish that slow down, calm, quite time for you this summer of 2017.  May all who walk on this beautiful planet grow in amazement at her many points of inspiration, like the waves of the ocean!


Mark Doorley, Ph.D.

President Emeritus, Board of Trustees

The Center for Environmental Transformation