AbstractIn recent years, much progress has been made to quantify the momentum exchange between the atmosphere and the oceans. The role of surface waves on the airflow dynamics is known to be significant, but our physical understanding remains incomplete. The authors present detailed airflow measurements taken in the laboratory for 17 different wind wave conditions with wave ages [determined by the ratio of the speed of the peak waves Cp to the air friction velocity u* (Cp/u*)] ranging from 1.4 to 66.7. For these experiments, a combined particle image velocimetry (PIV) and laser-induced fluorescence (LIF) technique was developed. Two-dimensional airflow velocity fields were obtained as low as 100 μm above the air–water interface. Temporal and spatial wave field characteristics were also obtained. When the wind stress is too weak to generate surface waves, the mean velocity profile follows the law of the wall. With waves present, turbulent structures are directly observed in the airflow, whereby low-horizontal-velocity air is ejected away from the surface and high-velocity fluid is swept downward. Quadrant analysis shows that such downward turbulent momentum flux events dominate the turbulent boundary layer. Airflow separation is observed above young wind waves (Cp/u*< 3.7), and the resulting spanwise vorticity layers detached from the surface produce intense wave-coherent turbulence. On average, the airflow over young waves (with Cp/u* = 3.7 and 6.5) is sheltered downwind of wave crests, above the height of the critical layer zc [defined by 〈u(zc)〉 = Cp]. Near the surface, the coupling of the airflow with the waves causes a reversed, upwind sheltering effect.