The Science of Surfing

When most people go to the beach, they see waves rolling onto the shore, and the idea of how these waves actually got to that point never even crosses their mind. For most people, they could care less how those waves actually formed; they just care that they’re there and they can have fun in the ocean. Being a surf instructor who relies on waves everyday to bring in business, I focus much more than the average person on how these waves actually come to be. Now imagine at the next Summer Olympics in Japan, where a director has to pray that there are ridable waves during the olympic timeframe, how much they care about how waves are formed. If you don’t believe me that surfing will be in the next olympics, here is some proof. Now I know that most of you don’t care about surfing and definitely don’t care that it will be an event at our next summer olympics, but I’m going to explain how this could go terribly wrong in 2020.

The basis of all waves start with wind. Whether it be deep sea winds or shoreline winds, wind is the key factor in moving water to produce waves. While water moves throughout the ocean, wind acts against it, pushing the water upwards forming “swells.” Swells are waves that move hundreds of miles across the ocean at a heightened elevation. As wind keeps blowing constantly over these waters, the swells will continue to grow as they travel towards shore. Low pressure systems, which are explained in this article, are known for created the best and biggest waves because they produce the strongest wind. Another way that these swells can grow along the way is by the shape of the ocean floor. If a moving body of water passes over a large bump in the ocean floor, it’s height is going to naturally increase.

These swells are not, however, what surfers ultimately surf; at least not until they reach the shoreline. When these swells finally reach shorelines, the shallow water slows them down, decreasing the wave lengths. As the wave lengths decrease, the swells get steeper, turning into cresting waves that are ridable for surfers. Depending on the shape of the sand bar, reef, or rocks at the shoreline, the wave will have a different shape.

With all of these factors coming into play to make a wave, you begin to realize how much of a miracle it is that waves actually make it to shore. So now, if you are a director of olympic surfing, wouldn’t you be a little nervous that there may not be waves big enough to surf during the two week olympic timeframe? It is very possible that this is what we will see at the 2020 Summer Olympics…



Now, while many of you may still not care about the amazing “wave production” process, it’s important to understand that many people actually rely on these waves to make a living. Here is an example of a professional surf event that was cancelled due to lack of waves. This meant that professional surfers, who get paid to surf in contests, were unable to surf and receive their paychecks. While this isn’t the end of the world, especially since the contest was rescheduled, it is definitely something to think about.

Many people might say, “Why don’t professional surfers just compete in surfing wave pools?,” which is a very valid argument. However, I, along with most surfers, would tell you that a machine produced wave ruins the sport. It takes the nature and fun out of surfing as every single wave is exactly the same. However, I will admit it’s pretty cool

I hope I’ve made you appreciate the production of waves a little more with this post. If not, at least next time you’re at the beach you’ll know exactly how those waves got there, or how they didn’t get there…

So who thinks there won’t be any rideable waves in Japan 2020?


Photo Credit:


No Waves Forces Cancellation of Roxy Pro Biarritz




7 thoughts on “The Science of Surfing

  1. Xueyao Cao

    Like the comments posted before me. I never really had any idea about how the waves worked, and how it relates to the surfing. I really like your blog and thanks for sharing it with us. It is extraordinary for me to see how things so obvious and common in our life could be related to science. I’m not sure if it would occur in the Olympics in 2020, but I agree with the idea that machine produced waves would never be able to compare with natural waves.

  2. Mary M. Brown


    Thank you for sharing this thought provoking information. Personally, I am one of those oblivious people who thinks about how cool surfing in 2020 will be, but never actually realizes all of the science behind it. Surfers really have to rely heavily on Mother Nature!

    That being said, I don’t think we will have much to worry about come 2020. Back in 2014, the media speculated that Sochi may have high temperatures that would disrupt skiing and snowboarding events in the Winter Olympics. As we both know, the games went off without a hitch (in that department at least). While it may seem like a snow to wave analogy is a bit far fetched, I do think it exemplifies the lengths Olympic planners will go to to ensure the success of each sporting event. They will find a way to make it work…and I’m excited to watch!

  3. Isaac Chandler Orndorff


    I find it extremely interesting to find out the science of waves. Incredibly, it’s something you’ve been around your entire life, yet I had no idea how it worked until now. Personally I think watching surfing in the 2020 Olympics would be a great addition to the sport, but also may be an issue if, as you mentioned in the post, the waves don’t cooperate. What if there is a bad storm the entire week, and the waves are too rough to participate? Or what if the waves are nonexistent that week? Imagine training for four years to surf in the Olympics, only to get there and it would be cancelled. I find it incredibly hard to believe they would put the money into that and risk it. Likewise, there is also the danger of sharks, which isn’t common, but one attack could throw the entire Olympics out of sorts. Overall, I think surfing in the 2020 Olympics is a bad idea.

  4. Hannah Margaret Mears


    I had no idea about any possibility that surfing might be in the Olympics in 2020. I never considered the obvious facts of how it would all work either, but I would love to see it happen. It intrigued me that the science necessary for this sport to take place would have to be so in depth that it would accurately predict waves for a two week period! Here is a link you might find interesting about wave prediction for surfing and waves in general. Link

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