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Arctic Ocean waves: Huge 16-feet swells breakup Arctic ice, prompting concerns

Surf’s up, which is a typical saying for the beaches of California, Hawaii and Australia, but it is not something you’d expect to hear about the Arctic Ocean. Scientists have documented wave heights as high as 29 feet with the average swells measured at about 16-feet, according to the Huffington Post on July 30.

Arctic Oceans waves are breaking up the Arctic ice faster than ever before and scientist forsee a few potential problems with this.
Arctic Oceans waves are breaking up the Arctic ice faster than ever before and scientist forsee a few potential problems with this.
Photo by Handout/Getty Images

The wave action is breaking up the ice, which allows more sunlight in to warm the ocean. This has prompted concerns that these waves breaking up the ice may start a cycle. Scientists are concerned that this cycle could lead to even less ice, more wind and higher waves, according to National Geographic today.

So how do the scientist measure the waves in this remote location of the world? They have placed sensors on the ocean bed and it measures the water’s height each time it moves, indicting the swells have gotten higher than ever before.

The icy waters of the Arctic is seeing these surfing-size waves because the “Arctic is melting” and this is “spurred by climate change,” reports the research team from the University of Washington and the Naval Research Laboratory. The lead researcher of this study, Jim Thomson, said that while the ocean is seeing waves that are 16-feet on average, they did clock one swell in at 29 feet in the Beaufort Sea and that is the biggest single wave to date.

Thompson, who is an oceanographer with the university’s Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a statement that it’s a “pretty simple prediction, additional open water should make waves.” The problem with the large waves isn’t about the waves themselves, but what they will do to the Arctic ice.

They see a potential threat looming that these bigger waves could work to break up the Arctic ice. They have nothing in the way of a timeline for the loss of sea ice due to these waves. That is why a study of the ice this summer is important for collecting the data to help the researchers predict more closely as to the future of the Arctic ice.

They also don’t know how exactly these waves will interact with the sea ice and what it will bring for the future of the ice. When it boils down to it, the scientists don’t have much to compare this to in the past. So far they’ve seen a “drastic decline in the amount of sea ice covering its frigid waters in recent years.”

There is a natural ebb and flow for the ice cap each year, which comes in the summer and winter months. Since keeping records back in 1979, this year is the fifth lowest on record for the peak amount of sea ice measured.

One possibility, which is considered a “remarkable departure from historical conditions in the Arctic,” is that this increased activity with wave energy will work as the “feedback mechanism to drive the Arctic system toward an ice-free summer.”

This would have implications that are wide-ranging for the humans who attempt to live there and on the air-water-ice system. The tracking of the breakup of Arctic ice over the summer is part of a large-scale project underway, which is funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

Thompson is currently working on this project that may offer up some answers to the many questions of how these large waves will interfere with the traditional progression of the ice breakup in the Arctic Ocean.