How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1134

Why are there two tides per day? — JF
The tide is caused primarily by the moon's gravity. Gravity is what keeps the moon and earth together as a pair—the moon and earth orbit one another because each is exerting an attractive force on the other. While they are effectively falling toward one another as the result of this gravitational attraction, their sideways motion keeps them from smashing together and they instead travel in elliptical paths around a common center of mass. But the moon's gravity is slightly stronger on the near side of the earth than it is on the far side of the earth. As a result, the water on the near side of the earth bulges outward toward the moon. The water on the far side of the earth also bulges outward because the earth itself is falling toward the moon slightly faster than that more distant water is. The distant water is being left behind as a bulge.

There are thus two separate tidal bulges in the earth's oceans: one on the side nearest the moon and one on the side farthest from the moon. But the earth rotates once a day, so these bulges move across the earth's surface. Since there are two bulges, a typical seashore passes through two bulges a day. At those times, the tide is high. During the times when the seashore is between bulges, the tide is low. Because the moon moves as the earth turns, high tides occur about 12 hours and 26 minutes apart, rather than every 12 hours. Since local water must flow to form the bulges as the earth rotates, there are cases where the tides are delayed as the water struggles to move through a channel. However, even in those cases, the high tides occur every 12 hours and 26 minutes. The sun's gravity also contributes to the tides, but its effects are smaller and serve mostly to vary the heights of high and low tide.


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