I can understand that the wavenumber is number of waves or cycles in a given distance. But what would a vertical wavenumber mean? Is it just another term for the wavenumber of a wave that is propagating vertically? I came across this in the context of oceanic internal waves.

Precisely, how is it (if it is) different from the wavenumber of a wave in general?

  • $\begingroup$ I came across this in the context of oceanic internal waves Can you define (or better: quote) that context? It helps if we know what you are talking about. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Doggen
    Mar 23, 2016 at 8:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JanDoggen I think it's pretty clear. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2016 at 17:30

1 Answer 1


enter image description here

In the picture above we see an internal wave propagating in the direction of the wavenumber vector $$\mathbf{K} = k \mathbf{e_x} + m \mathbf{e_z}$$ which (in 2D) is given by the vector sum of its components. $\mathbf{e_x}$ and $\mathbf{e_z}$ are unit vectors in the horizontal and vertical directions, respectively.

The continuity condition implies that $\mathbf{K} \cdot \mathbf{u}=0$. Hence, the direction of energy propagation (group velocity) is perpendicular to the direction of propagation of wave crests and troughs (phase velocity). Internal gravity waves are transverse waves so the fluid motion is parallel to lines of constant phase as indicated by the Eulerian velocity vector, $\mathbf{u}$.

The vertical wave number $m$ is the vertical component of the wavenumber vector because in a continuously stratified fluid internal waves can propagate in all directions. In fact, in the real ocean there is a third component, denoted by $l$ which is in the transverse direction so that the full wavenumber vector is

$$\mathbf{K} = k \mathbf{e_x} + l \mathbf{e_y} + m \mathbf{e_z}$$


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