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NOAA Ocean Facts: What is a seiche?


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graphic of standing wave

A seiche is a "standing" wave oscillating in a body of water.

If you have observed water sloshing back and forth in a swimming pool, bathtub, or cup of water, you may have witnessed a small-scale seiche (pronounced saysh). On a much grander scale, the same phenomenon occurs in large bodies of water such as bays and lakes. A seiche may occur in any semi- or fully-enclosed body of water.

Seiches are typically caused when strong winds and rapid changes in atmospheric pressure push water from one end of a body of water to the other. When the wind stops, the water rebounds to the other side of the enclosed area. The water then continues to oscillate back and forth for hours or even days. In a similar fashion, earthquakes, tsunamis, or severe storm fronts may also cause seiches along ocean shelves and ocean harbors.

Lake Erie is known for seiches, especially when strong winds blow from southwest to northeast. In 1848, a 22-foot seiche breached a 14-foot-high sea wall killing 78 people and damming the ice to the extent that Niagara Falls temporarily stopped flowing. As recently as 2008, strong winds created waves 12 to 16 feet high in Lake Erie, leading to flooding near Buffalo, New York. Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, is also known to routinely form small seiches after the passage of afternoon squall lines during summer months.

For more information:
Storm Surge and Coastal Inundation
Storm Surge Risk Map for U.S. Coast
Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services



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