Collecting data is a crucial part of scientific enquiry. To study waves and the ocean sea level, scientists usually gather data through the use of instruments. They collect information about the shape of the seabed, the composition of the water, wave characteristics and currents.

Measuring instruments are becoming more complex and refined as technology advances, so we can measure with greater precision. The advent of the GPS system has started a new era of instruments for the study of waves that combine positional sensing with other measuring instruments.

Measuring sea level

To measure sea level accurately, scientists use bubbler pressure gauges. These instruments measure the back pressure from blowing bubbles of air down a hole – the higher the pressure needed to blow the bubbles, the deeper the water. You can think of a bubbler gauge as being like a milkshake – it’s easy to blow through the straw and make bubbles when the milkshake’s nearly gone, but much harder when the glass is full! Bubbler gauges are important for detecting tsunamis because they measure sea level at short intervals (1 minute).

Measuring waves

Buoys can be used to measure the height, period and direction of waves. The buoy can even measure its own acceleration – this can tell scientists whether it is falling from the top of a high wave into a trough.

Tsunami buoys are connected to underwater pressure gauges, which can provide important water-level information about possible tsunamis as they speed past. There is a network of tsunami buoys in tsunami-prone areas of the Pacific Ocean. The buoys play a crucial role in alerting the public about potential tsunami waves. Within 9 minutes of the March 2011 Honshu earthquake, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii issued a tsunami alert for the Pacific region.

Looking at the seabed

Most of the instruments that ‘look’ at the seabed are acoustic (they use sound instead of light). This is because sound penetrates further through water than light. Using multibeam and side-scan sonar systems, researchers can take ‘photographs’ of the seabed. They can also get information about what the seabed surface is made of (sand, mud, rock and so on) and the material below the seabed itself.

The choice of sound frequency matters because low-frequency sounds penetrate further but higher frequencies give greater resolution. To measure at seabed depths, researchers might use frequencies down to 50kHz, but if there’s an area of particular interest, they might use 250–500kHz to look at detail on the seabed. Very high frequencies (like ultrasound waves) don’t penetrate well at all.

Interference patterns caused by the reflection or backscatter of the sound waves by various things on the seabed can set up characteristic images that are recognised by the scientists. For example, a shellfish like the morning star Tawera spissa) is the size of a 20 cent piece and is too small to be picked out on a 500kHz side-scan system – but when there is a bed of them, interference causes a distinctive pattern so that they can be identified. Interference patterns are determined by the size of the organisms and their density on the seabed.

Looking at what’s in the water

Sound waves can also tell us about the content of the ocean. If sound waves hit a moving object, their frequency changes – this is called the Doppler shift. The Doppler shift tells us about what is in the water column between the sound detector and the seabed in terms of suspended sediment, plankton density and so on. It enables measurements of the size and velocity of these particles.

Light systems using infrared light are also used to measure concentrations of suspended sediments, especially silt and mud. Infrared light is useful because there are no natural sources of that radiation in the ocean – a measure of the backscattering (or reflection) of the transmitted infrared rays gives a measure of the amount of suspended sediment present in that region of the ocean.

Nature of science

Scientific knowledge is based on observations of the natural world. Often, these observations are in the form of data from measuring instruments. The more precise the instrument, the more precise the data that can be gathered.

Useful links

Visit the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center website.

The National Data Buoy Center (USA) website provides background on the network of DART® tsunami buoys in the Pacific Ocean. The site also contains an interactive map of buoys in the network, with real-time water-level data.

    Published 2 May 2011