If you’ve ever sat out on a lake and just watched the water’s surface, you’ve probably noticed how complex and variable it looks. There may be waves that rock your kayak but there are smaller variations, too, like little ripples or even tiny wrinkles that appear on the surface. Much of this activity comes from wind blowing across the water. When the wind exceeds a critical speed, waves form. They generally travel in lines that are aligned perpendicular to the wind (lower right). But what happens when the wind is below the critical speed?
A recent study looked at just this question. By blowing air across the surface of different liquids and observing variations in the surface height as small as 2 micrometers, the researchers were able to measure tiny wrinkles on the water’s surface (lower left) when the wind speed was small. The size and shape of the wrinkles actually corresponds to structures in the turbulent air flow over the water! For fluids like water, there’s a smooth transition from wrinkles to waves as the wind speed increases, so both may be visible at the same time. For higher viscosity fluids, the switch from one to the other is more abrupt. (Image credits: water - M. Soveran; figure - A. Paquier et al. w/ annotations added in blue; research credit: A. Paquier et al.)