Size Distribution and Dispersion of Droplets Generated by Impingement of Breaking Waves on Oil Slicks

C. Li, J. Miller, J. Wang, S. S. Koley, J. Katz*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

80 Scopus citations


This laboratory experimental study investigates the temporal evolution of the size distribution of subsurface oil droplets generated as breaking waves entrain oil slicks. The measurements are performed for varying wave energy, as well as large variations in oil viscosity and oil-water interfacial tension, the latter achieved by premixing the oil with dispersant. In situ measurements using digital inline holography at two magnifications are applied for measuring the droplet sizes and Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) for determining the temporal evolution of turbulence after wave breaking. All early (2–10 s) size distributions have two distinct size ranges with different slopes. For low dispersant to oil ratios (DOR), the transition between them could be predicted based on a turbulent Weber (We) number in the 2–4 range, suggesting that turbulence plays an important role. For smaller droplets, all the number size distributions have power of about −2.1, and for larger droplets, the power decreases well below −3. The measured steepening of the size distribution over time is predicted by a simple model involving buoyant rise and turbulence dispersion. Conversely, for DOR 1:100 and 1:25 oils, the diameter of slope transition decreases from ∼1 mm to 46 and 14 µm, respectively, much faster than the We-based prediction, and the size distribution steepens with increasing DOR. Furthermore, the concentration of micron-sized droplets of DOR 1:25 oil increases for the first 10 min after entrainment. These phenomena are presumably caused by the observed formation and breakup oil microthreads associated with tip streaming.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7938-7957
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Oceans
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • breaking waves
  • digital holography
  • dispersant
  • oil droplet size distribution
  • oil spill


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