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What Is the Difference Between

Currents, Waves & Tides?

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By Lee Lamb, eHow Contributor

Currents, waves and tides drive the sea. While all three contain the
energy of motion, the factors and forces behind that motion vary,
from atmospheric conditions to the Earth's rotation and the moon's
gravitational pull. These forces push and pull at the sea, offering a
humbling reminder of the awesome power of nature.
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How Are Ocean
Currents Formed?

A wave is a forward motion of energy in water. As the wind blows across the ocean's surface,
it pushes on the water, causing it to ripple. A wave's size and speed depends on the wind's
strength, the length of its gusts and how far it blows. The greater these three are, the larger
the wave. Steady winds produce a series of waves called a wave train, where one wave
follows another in the same direction. The energy moves forward through the water, but the
water itself does not move forward. As a wave approaches land, the ocean floor affects its
shape and speed, causing it to become unstable before it finally pitches forward and breaks on
the shore.


A tide is the daily rise and fall of ocean waters caused by the Earth's rotation and the moon's
gravitational pull. This gravitational pull causes the ocean water closest to the moon to bulge
out from the Earth, creating a high tide. On the opposite side of the globe, the moon's
gravitational pull forms a second bulge of water, creating a second high tide. Low tides lay in
the shallow areas found halfway between the two high tides. A particular tide returns about
every 24 hours and 50 minutes.

Ocean Currents
Ocean currents are like highways or rivers of continuously moving water that travel great
distances. Large surface currents are primarily driven by year-round winds and flow
horizontally across the ocean's surface, spinning in large loops called gyres that rotate
clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.
Subsurface currents may move vertically and are caused when cold or very salty water,
which is denser, sinks below warm or less-salty water, which is less dense.

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Some currents occur only along the coast, and are caused by wave and tidal action. After a
wave breaks on the beach, momentum carries water across the sand, and an undertow
current returns it to the ocean. Longshore currents occur when waves strike the beach at an


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