For the first time, scientists have observed huge waves in the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic where once there used to be only ice, a phenomenon that is feared could break more ice and worsen global warming.
A new study, the first ever assessing waves in the Arctic Ocean, has discovered that vast areas once covered in ice and now ice-free have generated 16 foot (5 metres) waves in September 2012, when ice retreated more than 1,000 miles from the shore.
The new finding has important implications for the economy and the environment. Unstable weather would make it more difficult for states to open new shipping and oil routes through the melting Arctic, while strong waves could even worsen climate change, breaking more summer flowing ice and therefore speed up global warming.
Lead author Jim Thomson, an oceanographer with the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, explained, “As the Arctic is melting, it’s a pretty simple prediction that the additional open water should make waves.
“Almost all of the casualties and losses at sea are because of stormy conditions, and breaking waves are often the culprit.
“The melting has been going on for decades. What we’re talking about with the waves is potentially a new process, a mechanical process, in which the waves can push and pull and crash to break up the ice.”
Scientists will keep investigating the effects of big waves and what they will mean for further ice melting in other arctic locations and plan to put sensors in the ocean to better understand the process of sea ice retreat.
“There are several competing theories for what happens when the waves approach and get in to the ice,” Thomson added.
“At this point, we don’t really know relative importance of these processes in future scenarios.”
Photo: NASA Goddard via flickr