Researchers measured giant waves in a region of the Arctic that recently lost its ice cover as a result of climate change.
University of Washington researchers detected waves as high as 16 feet during the height of a storm; the waves were linked to high winds. The research was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
"As the Arctic is melting, it's a pretty simple prediction that the additional open water should make waves," said lead author Jim Thomson, an oceanographer with the UW Applied Physics Laboratory.
Arctic ice used to retreat only 100 miles from shore, in 2012 it retreated as far back as 1,000 feet. Winds blowing across this newly-open water create large waves that move at extremely high speeds. This could be bad news for companies who were hoping to use the region as shipping lanes.
"Almost all of the casualties and losses at sea are because of stormy conditions, and breaking waves are often the culprit," Thomson said.
The larger waves could also further escalate Arctic ice loss by breaking apart what is left. Waves breaking on the shore can affect permafrost along shorelines. Establishing the effect these large waves have on ice floes could help researchers predict what will happen to sea ice in the future.
"There are several competing theories for what happens when the waves approach and get in to the ice," Thomson said. "A big part of what we're doing with this program is evaluating those models."
The researcher plans to return to Alaska's northern coast to deploy more wave-tracking sensors. He will focus on how the waves' height is affected by "weather, ice conditions, and amount of open water."
"It's going to be a quantum leap in terms of the number of observations, the level of detail and the level of precision [for measuring Arctic Ocean waves]", Thomson said.