Predicting wave exposure in the rocky intertidal zone: Do bigger waves always lead to larger forces?

Helmuth, Brian, Mark W. Denny

Limnol. Oceanogr., 48(3), 2003, 1338-1345 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2003.48.3.1338

ABSTRACT: Hydrodynamic forces from breaking waves are among the most important sources of mortality in the rocky intertidal zone. Information about the forces imposed by breaking waves is therefore critical if we are to interpret the mechanical design and physiological performance of wave-swept organisms in an ecologically and evolutionarily relevant context. Wave theory and engineering experiments predict that the process of wave breaking sets a limit on the maximum force to which organisms can be subjected. Unfortunately, the magnitude of this limit has not been determined on rocky shores. To this end, at a moderately exposed shore in central California, we measured the maximum hydrodynamic forces imposed on organism-sized benthic objects and related these forces to nearshore significant wave heights. At 146 of 221 microsites, there was a significant and substantial positive correlation between force and wave height, and at 130 of these microsites, force increased nonlinearly toward a statistically defined limit. The magnitude of this limit varied among sites, from 19 to 730 newtons (N). At 37 other sites, there was no significant correlation between surf zone force and wave height, indicating that increased wave height did not translate into increased force at these sites either. At only 16 sites did force increase in proportion to wave height without an apparent upper bound. These results suggest that for most microsites there is indeed a limiting wave height beyond which force is independent of wave height. The magnitude of the limit varies substantially among microsites, and an index of local topography was found to predict little of this variation. Thus, caution must be exercised in any attempt to relate observed variations in ocean ‘‘waviness’’ to the corresponding rates of microsite disturbance in intertidal communities.

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