Sea Change

Shawn Parkin

How will climate change effect the surf? One study indicates it depends on where you live.

A recent study published in the Nature journal suggests that climate change will soon lead to bigger waves in the Southern Hemisphere. In the next century, surfers in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and parts of Antarctica can expect to see a six percent increase in the average annual wave height, which could mean as much as a half meter change in swell size. This bodes well for surfers in the southern hemisphere, whose already epic waves are about to get a serious boost.

Those in the northern hemisphere, however, won't be so lucky. The study also suggests a decrease in wave height for about 25 percent of the world's oceans, namely the Pacific. Surfers on the West Coast and Hawaii in particular will most likely see roughly a five percent decrease in wave height. While this doesn't necessarily spell the end of California surfing, it does suggest that more of the big-waves surfers will be heading south to catch their swells in the future.

To make these predictions, a group of international climatologists and researchers analyzed the interplay of ocean temperatures, wave height, direction, frequency, and wave energy -- all of which are influenced by wind and climate patterns.

According to Yalin Fan, an Associate Research Scholar of Oceanography at Princeton University and co-author of this study, waves are generated by wind, and thus, play a major role in the relationship between the atmosphere and the ocean (including fluctuations in moisture, force, and heat). "The increase in greenhouse gas emissions," says Fan, "is not only causing ocean temperatures to rise, but is also shifting the position of the jet stream." As the jet stream moves toward the South Pole, westerly winds over the Southern Ocean strengthen, thereby changing the size of waves in that region.

While Southern ocean surfers may rejoice, the beach communities in those regions will have to prepare for the coastal erosion that comes with larger, more forceful waves. And as climate change makes weather more extreme, there's an increased risk for houses and communities built on the shore. The wave height decrease in the North Pacific, on the other hand, will mitigate coastal erosion on the West coast of the U.S., though it may also mean less energy for the burgeoning wave-power industry.

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