Formerly, storm surges that lead to large waves were relatively unknown in the arctic. The great quantities of ice broke up the energy and wind required to form them.
“The interaction of waves and ice is particularly complex,” a recent study by the University of Washington explains, “because ice can suppress waves by scattering and dissipating wave energy while the waves simultaneously break up the ice.”
But that system has begun to deteriorate. In 2012, U of W researchers observed 16-foot waves about 350 miles from Alaska’s North Slope.
In their report, the researchers explain that arctic “fetch” – the technical term for winds blowing over a distance for a duration of time – traditionally varies by season. In the frozen winter it can linger around zero and in recent summers it can grow to hundreds of kilometers. Now, fetch is all over the place. Monitoring equipment in the central Beaufort Sea as well as numerical wave models and satellite images reveal far-ranging winds active throughout the seasonal ice cycle. As more ice melts and the arctic gains large tracts of open water, waves develop into fully-fledged swells.
The University of Washington is not the only institute to report on this ecological transformation. As early as 2011, the journal Ocean & Coastal Management published a study on the dangers extreme storm surges posed to coastal communities in the Southern North Sea. This week, the American Geophysical Union published a report documenting the North Sea’s “most significant storm surge in 60 years” that occurred in December 2013.
These studies all warn that larger waves will accelerate the deterioration of arctic sea ice.
“Future scenarios for reduced seasonal sea ice cover in the Arctic suggest that larger waves are to be expected and that swells will be more common,” U of W researchers write. “Swells carry more energy and have longer attenuation scales within ice and thus will be more effective at breaking up the remaining ice. It is possible that the increased wave activity will be the feedback mechanism which drives the Arctic system toward an ice-free summer.”
The disappearance of arctic ice is already attracting attention from countries with large shipping interests. Russian gas giant Gazprom has begun building a port near the Siberian city of Nadym, formerly surrounded by the frozen Kara Sea. Over the next 30 years, experts predict that an ice-free arctic will cut travel time to Asia by 40 percent. Gazprom has launched the first of its “ice-class” natural gas carriers in preparation.