Friday 12 December 2014


Ocean tides are one of the most amazing but overlooked natural wonders of our planet. As the Earth rotates relative to the sun and the moon, their gravity drags the Earth's water about, raising and lowering it in synchrony with the heavens. The importance of tides reaches further than just surfing, sunbathing and shipping: Tides are the reason the moon is drifting away from the Earth at 3.8 cm per year. Tides allow the formation of beaches with rock pools at low tide, that some biologists argue helped the evolution of early life. Tides (of the atmosphere) are the reason a satellite in a low orbit is more likely to burn up on the side of the Earth nearest or opposite to the moon. Tides even influence the time  earthquakes happen.

The explanation of why tides happen is classic high school geography/physics. The gravitational pull of an object is felt more strongly by something close to it. In the case of the Earth, this means that the oceans on the closest side of the Earth to the moon feels a stronger gravitational pull than the Earth as a whole, and the oceans on the far side feel a weaker pull. This means that the oceans on the near side of the Earth are pulled into a bulge (a region of high tide) and the oceans in the far side are also flung outward into a bulge (another region of high tide). This causes high and low tides twice per day. Throw in the similar contribution of the sun's gravitational pull, and it also explains spring tides around the time of the new and full moon.

Of course this is all a bit of a lie to simplify things. Many places have one  high and low tide per day, and a few places even have four. Some places have barely any tide, while others have very large tides where the water level can change by many metres. Why? Because the land gets in the way! It is impossible to have a bulge of water where Africa is, even if the moon was directly over the Sahara. So what does the pattern of tides actually look like?

Something like this:

[Watch in HD on YouTube]

This animation shows sea levels over the course of one day, where orange represents high water level, and blue represents low water level. Instead of the water levels changing because of two big bulges of water, there are instead complex patterns of water level change.

So, how does the simple rotation of the Earth relative to the sun and moon generate such complexity? It is easiest to think about the oceans as containers of water which gently slosh about as the water gets pulled by the gravity of the sun and moon. It is a bit like the sloshing of water you get carrying a glass of water, or when you climb out of a bathtub. The precise pattern of the sloshing depends on many things; the strength and direction of the gravitational force driving the sloshing, the depth of the water, and how the oscillating sloshing movement resonates when it gets trapped against the coastline.

The different water movements that make up the final tidal moment can be broken down by the force that generated them (the sun, the moon) and their frequency (once a day, twice a day). The two biggest contributing movements are a twice daily movement arising from the moon, and a once daily movement due to the combined action of the sun and moon.

These individual movements are mapped through their amplitude (how much the water changes height) and their phase (the relative time of high tide). These maps are surprisingly beautiful! Here are a couple of examples:

These are the patterns of movement of the "M2" part of tides, which is a twice daily water movement arising from the primary action of the moon's gravity. Brightness represents the amplitude, from black (zero amplitude) to white (5 metres amplitude). The coloured lines are a bit more complex. They represent the places where the highest water level occurs due to the M2 tidal component at different times, from red (at 0 hours) through the colours of the spectrum at 1 hour steps.

These are the patterns of movement of the "K1" part of tides, which is a once daily water movement arising from the combined action of the sun's and moon's gravity. Again, brightness represents amplitude, but the amplitudes are smaller and white represents only 2.5 metres. The coloured lines represent the time when highest water level due to the K1 tidal component occur, but this time separated by 2 hour steps.

These are just the two largest components of tides, there are many complex contributing factors: M2: principal semi-diurnal lunar, S2: principal semi-diurnal solar, N2: larger semi-diurnal elliptical lunar, K2: declinational semi-diurnal solar/lunar, 2N2: second-order semi-diurnal elliptical lunar, K1: principal diurnal solar/lunar, O1: principal lunar, P1: principal diurnal solar, Q1: larger diurnal elliptical lunar. Each of these components has similarly beautiful patterns of movement.

Software used:
ImageJ: HAMTIDE tital data plotting.


  1. Thank you for this beautiful visualisation!

  2. Startling images, and the pattern obviously must vary with the phase of moon (which depends on the relative position of the sun and moon), which isn't mentioned. Or doesn't this pattern vary? The one thing I miss from the first image is some sort of time-of-day indicator, not so much an absolute time for some meridian as a marker for the 24-hour cycle. It's a video loop, and I find myself losing track if I try to look at one part of the world. There are different clocks visible, but they are not in phase.

    1. In short, the pattern varies over time because the period/frequency of each component is slightly different. The main solar components have a period equal to the sidereal period; 23.93h. The lunar components have a period equal to the moonrise to moonrise period; 24.84h. These go in and out of phase once a month, giving the monthly cycle of tides.

      For the animations I rounded the periods to 24h to give a perfect loop; in that sense they are not accurate, just a good approximation of a single idealised day's tides.

  3. A colleague points out to me that the tides actually travel anticlockwise around New Zealand, not clockwise (as confirmed here:

    Is it possible these are backwards?

    1. Update on previous comment: the animation does seem to reverse the direction of the M2 diagram both for New Zealand and for the Pacific coast of the Americas (which is all I checked).

    2. Hmm, it's certainly possible I made a mistake (and this sounds like a simple sign change error)... I'll see if I can work out where it went wrong.


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