Climate change to fuel extreme waves in Arctic

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

July 7 (UPI) -- Extreme waves in the Arctic are likely to become bigger and more frequent as a result of climate change, according to a new study by scientists in Canada.

For the study, published Tuesday in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, researchers at Environment and Climate Change Canada, a publicly funded scientific agency, ran a pair of Arctic wave simulations.


One model relied historical data from 1979 to 2005, while the other used climate change forecasts to predict Arctic wave patterns from 2081 to 2100.

The simulations, which considered the affects of climate change on surface winds and sea ice patterns, showed the height of the region's highest waves, called extreme waves, could double or triple in size by the end of the century.

"Sea ice retreat plays an important role, not just by increasing the distance over which wind can blow and generate waves but also by increasing the chance of strong winds to occur over widening ice-free waters," lead study author Mercè Casas-Prat said in a news release.


The prediction models showed waves are likely to increase by an average of 6.6 feet across the entirety of the Arctic, and that the extreme wave events could occur as often as every two to five years. Currently, extreme wave events happen an average of once every 20 years.

"It increases the risk of flooding and erosion. It increases drastically almost everywhere," said Casas-Prat, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada's Climate Research Division. "This can have a direct impact to the communities that live close to the shoreline."

Scientists relied on five different multi-model simulations of oceanic and atmospheric conditions to generate their wave forecasts. While the models produced a range of outcomes, all of the models showed wave heights in the Arctic will increase if carbon emissions are significantly curbed.

The simulations predicted the Greenland Sea will experience the most dramatic increases in wave height.

The models suggest extreme waves cresting in the waters between Greenland and the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard will be as much as 20 feet taller by 2100. Simulations also showed extreme waves are likely to arrive later in the year.

"At the end of the century, the maximum will on average come later in the year and also be more extreme," Casas-Prat said.


Judah Cohen, a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wasn't involved in the study, said present-day observations along the Arctic coast reflect the predictions made by the new simulations.

"We are already seeing these increased risks along Arctic coastlines with damage to coastline structures that previously were never damaged," he said.

As part of the study, Casas-Prat and colleague Xiaolan L. Wang analyzed research wave height changes in the Beaufort Sea along the coasts of northern Alaska and Canada. The region, which is host to several coastal communities, as well as energy infrastructure, has experienced significant wave height increases in recent years.

In addition to accelerating erosion and damaging coastal structures, taller Arctic waves and more frequent and extreme flooding can also push saltwater into freshwater lagoons that coastal communities rely on, researchers said.

As bigger waves become more common, they could also accelerate the demise of sea ice, which a number of species, including polar bears, rely on, according to the researchers.

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