At sea, the term significant wave height is used as a means to introduce a well-defined and standardized statistic to denote the characteristic height of the random waves in a sea state, including wind sea and swell. It is defined in such a way that it more or less corresponds to what a mariner observes when estimating visually the average wave height.
Depending on context, wave height may be defined in different ways:
with cp the phase speed (or propagation speed) of the wave. The sine wave is a specific case of a periodic wave.
In random waves at sea, when the surface elevations are measured with a wave buoy, the individual wave height Hm of each individual wave—with an integer label m, running from 1 to N, to denote its position in a sequence of N waves—is the difference in elevation between a wave crest and trough in that wave. For this to be possible, it is necessary to first split the measured time series of the surface elevation into individual waves. Commonly, an individual wave is denoted as the time interval between two successive downward-crossings through the average surface elevation (upward crossings might also be used). Then the individual wave height of each wave is again the difference between maximum and minimum elevation in the time interval of the wave under consideration.
Significant wave heightH1/3, or Hs or Hsig, as determined directly from the time series of the surface elevation, is defined as the average height of that one-third of the N measured waves having the greatest heights:
where Hm represents the individual wave heights, sorted into descending order of height as m increases from 1 to N. Only the highest one-third is used, since this corresponds best with visual observations of experienced mariners, whose vision apparently focuses on the higher waves.
where m0, the zeroth-moment of the variance spectrum, is obtained by integration of the variance spectrum. In case of a measurement, the standard deviation ση is the easiest and most accurate statistic to be used.
Another wave-height statistic in common usage is the root-mean-square (or RMS) wave height Hrms, defined as:
with Hm again denoting the individual wave heights in a certain time series.