In the future, surfing is going to suck for a quarter of the world. New research from Australia's national science agency reveals that thanks to warming waters, the height of ocean waves is poised to shrink, on average, across about 25 percent of the ocean. From January-March each year, the figure jumps to 38.5%. That could shave a few crucial feet off the waves in many of the top surfing spots around the world.
How do we know? Climatologists with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation have completed the first major effort to model how climate change is going to impact wave behavior. The scientists analyzed projected changes in global atmospheric circulation to get a read on how ocean waves around the world will respond. Previously, we'd seen plenty of models that examine sea level rise, ocean acidification, and ocean temperatures, but few efforts had been made to hone in on wave patterns.
And now, in a newly published paper, we've got our first inkling of what coastal waves look like when they crash down on beaches in a steamier world. And it's not good news for beach-goers or animals that depend on coastal habitats, either. Not only does the data show that many waves are prone to serious shrinkage, but it that the beaches they crash upon are eroding faster than before—two phenomena that are closely intertwined.
The paper's lead author, Dr. Mark Hemer, said that "20 percent of the world’s coastlines are sandy beaches which are prone to natural or man-made changes. It is estimated that 10 percent of these sandy coasts are becoming wider as they build seawards, 70 percent are eroding and the remaining 20 per cent are stable."
In a release announcing the findings, Helmer explained why we should be paying closer attention to wave behavior, and not just general sea level rise: “Waves are dominant drivers of coastal change in these sandy environments, and variability and change in the characteristics of surface ocean waves (sea and swell) can far exceed the influences of sea-level rise in such environments."
Especially because these findings come as something of a surprise. Previous, less wave-specific research had shown that ocean wave height (along with wind and storminess) seemed to be increasing. And while the researchers of the first major climate wave models acknowledge that there's still plenty of uncertainty, the picture their data paints is a stark opposite.
There's a lone bright spot for the beleagured surfers of the future, however. The models predict that wave height will increase primarily in just a single major sea: the Southern Ocean. In that ocean, the one that surrounds Antarctica, waves are expected to grow by 7 percent. Which means that in the future, if a surfer wants to catch a decent wave, he's going to have to make for the south pole. Not to worry; at the rate things are going, it should be plenty temperate down there in no time. Just slap on a spring suit and head for Gentoo Beach.