What causes the tides?« Back to Questions List

Tides are the rising and falling of the levels of the oceans and seas.  Tides are caused by the combined effects of the gravitational forces exerted by the Moon and the Sun and the rotation of the Earth



The Moon’s gravity ‘pulls’ the Earth and  seas as it orbits the planet. The gravitational field created by the Moon weakens with distance from the Moon. It exerts a slightly stronger than average force on the side of the Earth facing the Moon, and a slightly weaker force on the opposite side. The Moon thus tends to "stretch" the Earth slightly along the line connecting the two bodies. The solid Earth deforms a bit, but ocean water, being fluid, is free to move much more in response to the tidal force, particularly horizontally. As the Earth rotates, the magnitude and direction of the tidal force at any particular point on the Earth's surface change constantly; although the ocean never reaches equilibrium—there is never time for the fluid to "catch up" to the state it would eventually reach if the tidal force were constant—the changing tidal force nonetheless causes rhythmic changes in sea surface height.











If you’re at the coast and the Moon is overhead, you’ll experience a high tide. This’ll also be true if you’re on the opposite side of the Earth (because the Moon is pulling the Earth away from the water on that side).


      tide1     tide2

High tide,  in the Bay of Fundy                   Low tide at the same Bay of Funday


Some shorelines experience two almost equal high tides and two low tides each day, called a semi-diurnal tide. Some locations experience only one high and one low tide each day, called a diurnal tide. Some locations experience two uneven tides a day, or sometimes one high and one low each day; this is called a mixed tide. The times and amplitude of the tides at a locale are influenced by the alignment of the Sun and Moon.



Tides vary on timescales ranging from hours to years due to numerous influences. To make accurate records, tide gauges at fixed stations measure the water level over time. Gauges ignore variations caused by waves with periods shorter than minutes. These data are compared to the reference (or datum) level usually called mean sea level.



Tide Gauge

While tides are usually the largest source of short-term sea-level fluctuations, sea levels are also subject to forces such as wind and barometric pressure changes, resulting in storm surges, especially in shallow seas and near coasts.


Tidal phenomena are not limited to the oceans, but can occur in other systems whenever a gravitational field that varies in time and space is present. For example, the solid part of the Earth is affected by tides, though this is not as easily seen as the water tidal movements.