Climate Change Could Make Arctic Waves Two Stories Higher

A wave washing up on the Inuvialuit hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in Canada's Northwest Territories during an August 2019 storm. (Photo: Weronika Murray)
A wave washing up on the Inuvialuit hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in Canada's Northwest Territories during an August 2019 storm. (Photo: Weronika Murray)

Climate change may cause huge waves to swell in the Arctic, which could have a devastating impact on coastal communities.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Much of the region has historically remained frozen for most of the year, but as it heats up, its sea ice is melting, creating increasing periods of open water, especially in the summer. A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters shows that could have dangerous consequences.

The researchers, who work with Environment and Climate Change Canada, used five different multi-model simulations of oceanic and atmospheric conditions. They then ran simulations to examine wave conditions during two different periods: a historical one that looked at waves from 1979 to 2005, and a future one focused on 2081 to 2100, years when scientists predict the Arctic region could be largely absent of ice in the summertime.

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The results show that as a result of decreased ice, there’s more surface area of water, which gives winds more potential to create Arctic swell. To make matters worse, there will be less ice around to suppress waves by adding mass to the water’s surface. Based on these simulations, the scientists project that in some areas, the average height of the highest waves seen on the Arctic Ocean could increase by nearly 20 feet (6 meters) — the equivalent of a two-story building. These extreme waves could also occur more often. Right now, extreme wave events occur once every 20 years, but by the end of the century, they may occur as often as once every two to five years.

Along the shore of the Arctic, such as on the coastlines of the Beaufort Sea, wave heights won’t increase so dramatically. The scientists expect they’ll get about 6.5 feet (2 meters) higher. But since people live there, the impacts could be greater. Researchers have seen waves growing taller in other ocean basins.

“It really increases the chance of flooding from these huge waves … and can create more beach erosion,” Judah Cohen, a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the study, told Earther. “The height of the wave is directly related and proportional to the amount distance that the wind blows, so more open ocean means greater potential for these higher waves. Where it was really almost impossible to get waves of any real significance on the Arctic before because of the sea ice … now that there’s more melt … we’ll see more waves.”

The most vulnerable areas, the study found, are the east-facing shores of Greenland’s and Canada’s western Arctic along the Beaufort Sea. Melting permafrost has already created more vulnerability to coastal erosion in communities there, such as the Arctic village Tuktoyaktuk in Canada. Disappearing sea ice and erosion is also impacting Indigenous communities’ quality of life in other ways, such as making hunting more challenging. Extreme waves could put them at even more risk.