Giant waves found in Arctic Ocean could be accelerating sea ice loss


Satellite images of polar ice sheets taken in 2001 and 2007 show retreating ice in the Beaufort Sea during summer in the Arctic Ocean. (Photo by USGS via Getty Images)

Huge areas of ice-free water are leading to massive waves in the Arctic Ocean, according to a study published in Geophysical Research Letters. As the Morning Mix reported earlier today, swells of 16 feet were recorded in the Arctic in 2012 during peak wave times, and the largest waves approached 29 feet. Waves like this are now not only possible because of Arctic sea ice melting, but they also have the power to cause sea ice melt, themselves.

Besides the obvious consequences to an ice-free Arctic (more heat absorption via the dark ocean, lack of ice platforms for Arctic mammals and birds to hunt from), this will also hinder the ability for humans to operate in the North Pole, whether that be for oil drilling or trans-Arctic shipping. The weather is already unfavorable for human activities, and if you top that with massive waves, you get the potential for hazardous conditions.


Sea ice extent as of July 15, 2014. The dark grey line represents the average sea ice extent from April through August, and the dotted green line represents 2012, which was the lowest sea ice extent year on record. (NSIDC.org)

Sea ice extent in the Arctic is decreasing rapidly this summer. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, “during the second half of June, sea ice extent loss was the second fastest in the satellite data record.” It has been decreasing 21 percent faster than average for this period. Sea ice thickness in 2014 has been tracking among the lowest four years on record, according to data from the University of Washington.


Arctic sea ice volume to date in 2014. The light brown line (squares) represents 2014. (University of Washington Polar Science Center)

Whether or not 2014 will be a record low sea ice year is uncertain. 2012, which set a record for lowest Arctic sea ice extent on record, saw an incredible, rapid drop in sea ice beginning in the late summer, despite that year being cooler and cloudier than the previous record low year. 49 percent of the ice cap went missing that year, and sea ice extent dropped to an astounding 18 percent below the previous record year of 2007.

Unfortunately you can’t just look at the recent loss rate to determine future months. While heat plays an obvious role in sea ice melt, the weather patterns above the ice are just as influential. Depending on timing and location, storms can work to accelerate or decelerate sea ice loss. In 2012, a massive Arctic storm enhanced sea ice melt and pushed the year across the record line. As sea ice thins, it becomes more susceptible to strong, Arctic winds and waves, and it becomes more prone to breaking. And as sixteen foot waves become business as usual in the Arctic Ocean, we can likely expect sea ice extent to respond in-kind.

Angela Fritz is an atmospheric scientist and The Post's deputy weather editor.
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Angela Fritz · July 30, 2014