Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Tidal Movements

The tide is the vertical rise and fall of the sea level surface caused primarily by the change in gravitational attraction of the moon, and to a lesser extent the sun.
As the earth spins on its axis the centrifugal force results in slightly deeper water near the equator as opposed to shallower water at the poles. In fact it causes a flow from the poles to the equator.
The earth is also in orbit around the sun (one revolution in one year) creating not only another centrifugal force but also a gravitational interaction. These two yield a bulge on the night site (centrifugal) and a bulge on the day site (gravitational) both of them moving as the world turns. Therefore certain places on this world will experience two high and two low tides each day.

With these forces alone, we would not have spring tides and neap tides. Spring tides have higher high tides and lower low tides whereas neap tides have lower high tides and higher low tides. Hence, the range (difference in water level between high and low tide) is much larger in a spring tide than in a low tide.
These differences in range can be explained if we include the moon into our earth-sun system. The moon and the earth orbit each other around a point inside the earth, creating a centrifugal and a gravitational bulge. Despite the sun's immensely larger mass, the moon exerts a 2.25 times larger gravi­tatio­nal attraction, since the moon is much closer to our earth.It is the combined effect of the sun and moon that creates spring and neap tides. When aligned with the earth they combine their attraction and otherwise they counteract their attraction.

The time difference between spring tide and neap tide is normally 7 days and is in accordance with the phases of the moon. Yet, water has mass and therefore momentum. Moreover, it is a viscous fluid that generates friction if moved. Therefore, the actual spring tide lags a day or so behind a full moon or new moon occurrence.

So, tidal movements result in a Tidal day of 24 hours and 50 minutes containing one tidal cycle, namely two highs and two lows. This basic pattern may be distorted by the effects of landmasses, constrained waterways, friction, the Coriolis effect, or other factors. Predictions are possible and we expect the the next day's high tide to come about 50 minutes later.
If you look closer at the orbit of the moon, it reveals that the moon is not always in the equatorial plane, resulting in three types of tides.

Semi-diurnal tide: Featuring two highs and two lows each day, with minimal variation in the height of successive high or low waters. This type is more likely to occur when the moon is over the equator.

Diurnal tide: Only a single high and a single low during each tidal day, successive high and low waters do not vary by a great deal. This tends to occur in certain areas when the moon is at its furthest from the equator.

Mixed tide: Characterized by wide variations in heights of successive high and low waters, and by longer tidal cycles than those of the semi-diurnal cycle. These tides also tend to occur as the moon moves furthest north or south of the equator.