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Foamy Streaks on the Water

Have you ever wondered what those foamy streaks of scum on the water are? Have you ever wondered why the bubbles seem to align themselves in streaks and not just cover the surface on windy days?

Those streaks or scum lines are due to a rather complex water movement phenomenon called Langmuir Circulation. When a specific blend of wind speed and wave movement occurs, we experience Langmuir Circulation.

Langmuir Circulation was discovered back in 1938 by scientist Irving Langmuir during a cross-Atlantic voyage. Langmuir noticed the sargassum (floating seaweed) forming linear patterns on the waters surface during his journey. Upon returning home, Langmuir conducted experiments in Lake George, New York, in order to explain the sargassum formations.Foamy Streaks

What Langmuir discovered was that as wind blows across the surface of the water, convection cells begin to take shape, as the shearing forces of the wind push the surface water. The surface water is pushed in a perpendicular fashion to create a circulation pattern below the water. These cells begin to rotate as “tubes” of water for the length of the bay just below the surface and pointed in the direction of the wind. The tubes rotate in opposite directions to the concurrent tube next to it.

In simplest terms, when wind pushes a unit of water from point A to point B, more water rushes to fill point A. This causes an upwelling to occur. At point B, where there is more water than before, a downwelling occurs. This upwelling and downwelling effect, which happen over and over again, creates the spiraling tubes mentioned above.

While we can only see the surface, the evidence of this phenomena occurring lies in the two concurrent, counter-circulating tubes that clear the surface on the upwelling and concentrate  floating bubbles on the downwelling. Because the two adjoining cells or tubes are rotating in opposite directions, what we see is the accumulation of bubbles, foam, and debris on the waters surface.

Next time you’re out on the water and you see the telltale scum line, look around for another. The distance between the two scum line streaks is equal to two tubes. If you position your boat on top of a scum line, the water beneath you will be moving down and downwind. As your boat drifts between two scum lines, the water beneath you will be moving up and downwind.

Langmuir Circulation can be observed on any body of water including oceans, seas, lakes, estuaries, and rivers. This phenomenon can form very quickly and last from several minutes to several hours. So, have you seen those foamy streaks on the water lately?

9 Comments on “Foamy Streaks on the Water

  1. We live on a small long lake, when a strong wind blows from the south, we get parallel lines the length of the lake. they are not foamy, just lighter and smoother than the rest of the water. Any ideas?

    • Hi Grace…I suspect you are also seeing Langmuir’s circulation. What is visible in the parallel lines is dependent upon what is being pushed to the surface, along with weather and sea conditions.

  2. There seems to be a connection between the white foamy lines and pending rainy weather. I grew up spending every summer at a lake. Every time the white lines show up, my Grandfather would say “rains coming !” This past week we were on vacation at a lake and sure enough, the white lines were present the day before rain was forecasted.

  3. I live on Marco Island, where during the summer wet season, material rises to the surface in our canals and residents assume this is an algae bloom. Please give me the technical term for this phenomena.

  4. I live on the Intracoastal Waterway and have seen this for the first time all day today! Could this be harmful in any way if walking along side the Waterway & breathing the wind that’s blowing & causing it from algae etc?!

    • Hi Loretta… because most algae do not produce toxins, this would generally not be a concern. The scummy ness seen, often times is composed of diatoms, which are rarely toxic. However if there were a toxic algal bloom of the red tide forming Karenia brevis (a dinoflagellate), and the cells became aerosolized when forced to the surface, it could result in respiratory irritation… but aerosolized is key… meaning the toxin needs to attach to the water vapor/salt spray. Since Langmuir Circulation tends to occur under windy conditions this could happen, but it would be the wind, not the rotating water of Langmuir Circulation that results in aerosolization, and risk would be no different than under normal windy conditions.

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