A capillary wave is a wave travelling along the interface between two fluids, whose dynamics are dominated by the effects of surface tension. Capillary waves are common in nature and home, and are often referred to as ripple. The wavelength of capillary waves is typically less than a few centimeters.
Capillary waves, proper
The dispersion relation for capillary waves is
Gravity wave regime
For large wavelengths (small k = 2π/λ), only the first term is relevant and one has gravity waves. In this limit, the waves have a group velocity half the phase velocity: following a single wave's crest in a group one can see the wave appearing at the back of the group, growing and finally disappearing at the front of the group.
Capillary wave regime
Shorter (large k) waves (e.g. 2 mm), which are proper capillary waves, do the opposite: an individual wave appears at the front of the group, grows when moving towards the group center and finally disappears at the back of the group. Phase velocity is two thirds of group velocity in this limit.
Phase velocity minimum
Between these two limits, an interesting and common situation occurs when the dispersion caused by gravity cancels out the dispersion due to the capillary effect. At a certain wavelength, the group velocity equals the phase velocity, and there is no dispersion. At precisely this same wavelength, the phase velocity of gravity-capillary waves as a function of wavelength (or wave number) has a minimum. Waves with wavelengths much smaller than this critical wavelength λc are dominated by surface tension, and much above by gravity. The value of this wavelength is:
As Richard Feynman put it, "...[water waves], which are easily seen by everyone and which are used as an example of waves in elementary courses... are the worst possible example... they have all the complications that waves can have"  The derivation of the general dispersion relation is therefore quite involved (see e.g. Ref.  for a more detailed description.)
Therefore, first the assumptions involved are pointed out. There are three contributions to the energy, due to gravity, to surface tension, and to hydrodynamics. The first two are potential energies, and responsible for the two terms inside the parenthesis, as is clear from the appearance of g and σ. For gravity, an assumption is made of the density of the fluids being constant (i.e., incompressibility), and likewise g (waves are not high for gravitation to change appreciably). For surface tension, the deviations from planarity (as measured by derivatives of the surface) are supposed to be small. Both approximations are excellent for common waves.
The last contribution involves the kinetic energies of the fluids, and is the most involved. One must use a hydrodynamic framework to tackle this problem. Incompressibility is again involved (which is satisfied if the speed of the waves is much less than the speed of sound in the media), together with the flow being irrotational — the flow is then potential; again, these are typically good approximations for common situations. The resulting equation for the potential (which is Laplace equation) can be solved with the proper boundary conditions. On one hand, the velocity must vanish well below the surface (in the "deep water" case, which is the one we consider, otherwise a more involved result is obtained, see Ocean surface waves.) On the other, its vertical component must match the motion of the surface. This contribution ends up being responsible for the extra k outside the parenthesis, which causes all regimes to be dispersive, both at low values of k, and high ones (except around the one value at which the two dispersions cancel out.)
|Dispersion relation for gravity-capillary waves on an interface between two semi-infinite fluid domains|
|Consider two fluid domains, separated by an interface with surface tension. The mean interface position is horizontal. It separates the upper from the lower fluid, both having a different constant mass density, ρ and ρ’ for the lower and upper domain respectively. The fluid is assumed to be inviscid and incompressible, and the flow is assumed to be irrotational. Then the flows are potential , and the velocity in the lower and upper layer can be obtained from ∇Φ and ∇Φ’, respectively. Here Φ(x,y,z,t) and Φ’(x,y,z,t) are velocity potentials.
Three contributions to the energy are involved: the potential energy Vg due to gravity, the potential energy Vst due to the surface tension and the kinetic energy T of the flow. The part Vg due to gravity is the simplest: integrating the potential energy density due to gravity, ρ g z (or ρ’ g z) from a reference height to the position of the surface, z = η(x,y,t):
assuming the mean interface position is at z=0.
An increase in area of the surface causes a proportional increase of energy:
where the fist equality is the area in this (Monge's) representation, and the second applies for small values of the derivatives (surfaces not too rough).
These equations can be solved with the proper boundary conditions: Φ and Φ’ must vanish well away from the surface (in the "deep water" case, which is the one we consider).
Using Green's identity, and assuming the deviations of the surface elevation to be small (so the z-integrations may be approximated by integrating up to z=0 instead of z=η), the kinetic energy can be written as:
with amplitude a and wave phase θ = kx - ωt. The kinematic boundary condition at the interface, relating the potentials to the interface motion, is that the vertical velocity components must match the motion of the surface:
For sinusoidal waves and linear wave theory, the phase-averaged Lagrangian is always of the form L = D(ω,k) a², so that variation with respect to the only free parameter, a, gives the dispersion relation D(ω,k) = 0 . In our case D(ω,k) is just the expression in the square brackets, so that the dispersion relation is:
the same as above.
As a result, the average wave energy per unit horizontal area, ( T + V ) / λ, is:
As usual for linear wave motions, the potential and kinetic energy are equal (equipartition holds): T = V.
- 2006-01-14 Surface waves.jpg
Ripples on water
- Surface waves and water striders.JPG
Ripples on water created by water striders
Ripples of tapwater over a plughole
- Ripple - in rail.jpg
- Lamb, H. (1994). Hydrodynamics (6th edition ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521458689. §267, page 458–460.
- Dingemans, M. W. (1997). Water wave propagation over uneven bottoms. Advanced Series on Ocean Engineering. 13. World Scientific, Singapore. pp. 2 Parts, 967 pages. ISBN 981-02-0427-2. Section 2.1.1, p. 45.
Phillips, O.M. (1977). The dynamics of the upper ocean (2nd edition ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29801-6. Section 3.2, p. 37.
- R.P. Feynman, R.B. Leighton, and M. Sands "The Feynman lectures on physics" Addison-Wesley 1963. Section 51-4.
- Samuel Safran "Statistical thermodynamics of surfaces, interfaces, and membranes" Addison-Wesley 1994.
- Lamb (1994), §174 and §230.
- Lamb (1994), §266.
- Lamb (1994), §61.
- Lamb (1994), §20
- Lamb (1994), §230.
- Whitham, G.B. (1974). Linear and nonlinear waves. Wiley-Interscience. ISBN 0 471 94090 9. See section 11.7.
- Lord Rayleigh (J. W. Strutt) (1877). "On progressive waves". Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society. 9: 21–26. Reprinted as Appendix in: Theory of Sound 1, MacMillan, 2nd revised edition, 1894.