Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 17 Issue 02

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Volume 17, No. 2
Pages 11 - 11


BOX • Tiny Bubbles: An Overlooked Optical Constituent

By Eric Terrill  and Marlon Lewis  
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While it can be imagined that one of the earliest descriptions of the ocean’s surface viewed by man when he put forth to the ocean on rudimentary vessels might be the intensity of whitecapping, the science of understanding the influence of bubbles on marine light fields is an active area of research. Breaking waves at the ocean’s surface inject bubbles and turbulence into the water column. During periods of rough weather, the scales of wave breaking tend to increase with increasing sea states, resulting in mixing of the surface waters and the turbulent transport of bubbles to depth. The bubbles injected by breaking will span several orders of magnitude in size from perhaps less than microns in diameter to O(1) cm. To complicate matters, the size distribution of bubble populations will evolve in time due to a complex interplay between the bubble rise speed, gas dissolution, surface tension, and turbulence, which are size-dependent, physical influences. In addition to breaking waves, bubble formation and stabilization result from biological processes such as photosynthesis in the surface layer, microbial decomposition in the sediments, the passage of low-pressure fronts that can bring gas out of solution, and cavitation due to ships and other moving objects. The ubiquitous dissolved organic matter present in all oceans adheres onto bubbles almost immediately on formation, which significantly alters their physical dynamics, their optical characteristics, and potentially their gas dissolution rates.


Terrill, E., and M. Lewis. 2004. Science box—Tiny bubbles: An overlooked optical constituent. Oceanography 17(2):11, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2004.41.

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