Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Short Post. You can skip this if you understand the tidal force. Some folks seem confused about the nature of tidal forces. Today I saw this gem: “The tide raising force acts in both directions (bulge on each side in the simplistic model)” … the author of that statement may understand the tides, but that isn’t how tidal forces work, they don’t act in different directions.
To clarify the situation, let me give an example. Imagine three one-kilogram masses M1, M2, and M3, connected by a blue rope, that are in free-fall directly into the sun. Figure 1 shows the situation.
Figure 1. Forces on three one-kilogram masses M1—M3, which are in free-fall straight towards the sun, and are connected by the blue rope. The equations at the bottom show the force of gravity on each of the three masses. The “tidal force” is the difference between two gravitational forces on two objects. Solar tidal forces on a 1-kg mass at the earth’s surface average about half a micronewton (µN, or 10-6 newtons), and the lunar tidal forces are about twice that, about a micronewton. By comparison, Earth’s gravity exerts a force of about 10 newtons on a 1-kg mass at the surface …
Clearly, the gravitational force on M1 is greater than the force on M2, which in turn is greater than the force on M3. The difference between those two gravitational forces is the tidal force. There are two different tidal forces of interest in the diagram, which are GF1 – GF2, and GF2 – GF3. As a result of these tidal forces, as the three masses fall towards the sun. the near mass M1 moves the furthest, the far mass M3 moves the least, and the blue rope is always under tension.
For tidal forces on a theoretical planet, just imagine that the surface of the planet is the gray dotted line, and that “r” is the radius of the planet. The tidal force is the difference between the force of gravity on the unit mass M2 at the center of the planet, and the forces of gravity on the unit masses M1 and M3 at the points nearest and furthest from the sun.
Calculating the Tidal Forces
As shown in Figure 1, to calculate the tidal force you can just subtract the gravitational force on the unit mass at the center of the planet from the force on the other unit mass, for example GF1 – GF2. So we can use the equations in Figure 1 to calculate the force.
However, when the distance D is much, much larger than the radius r, we can make some simplifying assumptions. First, we can assume that the force between M1 and M2 is the same as the force between M2 and M3. It’s not, as you can see from the equations … but it is not a large error. For tides from the moon, the individual tidal forces are about ±5% different from their average value.
The next simplifying assumption we can make if D is much larger than r is that the average tidal force can be calculated as
Tidal Force = 2 * G * sunmass * r / D^3
This leads to tiny errors with respect to the sun’s average tidal force on the earth, and slightly larger errors with respect to the moon. For the sun we have
Near side true tidal force on earth (GF1 – GF2) = 0.50590 µN
Far side true force (GF2 – GF3) = 0.50583
True average = 0.50587
Approximation = 0.50587
So the approximation of the average tidal force is good to five significant digits …
And for the moon we have:
Near side true tidal force on earth (GF1 – GF2) = 1.1350 µN
Far side true force (GF2 – GF3) = 1.0796
True average = 1.1073
Approximation = 1.1067
For the moon, the approximation of the average is good to four significant digits. For most results, of course, those differences are far too small to be meaningful, and we can use the approximation without concern.
Why Are There Two Tidal Bulges?
Moving on, let’s look at why there are tidal bulges on both the near and far sides. It’s not because the tidal force acts in different directions, because tidal force is always directed towards the sun. So lets look at Figure 1 again, and this time we’ll include a planet and an ocean. As in Figure 1, the planet is simply free-falling into the sun. That result is shown in Figure 2:
Figure 2. Tidal forces elongating the planet and the ocean. Note that the planet is elongated as well, but this is not shown in the diagram because obviously, tides in the solid planet are much smaller than tides in the ocean. NOTE THAT THIS PLANET IS NOT THE EARTH.
As the planet free-falls into the sun, the near side of the ocean is pulled the most. So it moves the most, pulling away from the planet. And the planet, in turn is pulled more than the far side, so it pulls away from the ocean. These relative motions create the “bulges”
In other words, the “bulges” on the two sides of the planet are simply a result of the tidal forces stretching the entire system. Indeed, the atmosphere is subject to the same phenomenon, so there are atmospheric tides as well. In prior centuries, these atmospheric tides were said to affect the weather, although in a cyclical rather than a secular manner. However, such connections, while certainly possible, have proven to be elusive and difficult to establish. One complicating factor is that the atmospheric tides that are caused by the sun occur in combinations with solar heating, which makes the atmosphere swell. Also, the variations in pressure caused by the atmospheric tides are small, on the order of a tenth of a millibar (or of a hectopascal), or a variation of only 0.01% …
Finally, I’ve said that the situation in Figure 2 shows that planet free-falling into the sun. As it gets closer and closer, the tidal forces stretching the system get greater and greater, stretching the system more and more. Eventually, at a distance called the “Roche limit”, the tidal forces can reach such strength that they rip the planet into pieces … dang, to have a ring-side seat right on the Roche limit line for that spectacle would be awesome, even if it were perhaps a bit warm …
My best to all,
PS—As with gravity, every mass in the universe exerts a tidal force on every other mass, so you can personally take credit for raising a tide on the surface of the sun … yeah, it’s a small tide, but it’s real. Just sayin’, I had someone claim the opposite. Lots of tidal misinformation out there.
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