The Oceans Are Getting Stormier

"These changes have impacts that are felt all over the world.”
​A ship during an ocean storm. Image: Shutterstock
A ship during an ocean storm. Image: Shutterstock

Earth’s oceans have become stormier since 1985, according to a study published Thursday in Science. In the most extreme places, wind speed and wave height rose by about 5 to 8 percent.

If this trend continues, it could exacerbate the effects of sea level rise, including floods that damage coastal communities and natural ecosystems.

Authored by Ian Young and Agustinus Ribal, professors at the department of infrastructure engineering at the University of Melbourne, the study analyzed wind and wave data from 31 satellites and 80 ocean buoys.


The team found that the winds and waves got stronger, on average, around the globe. The phenomenon was especially pronounced in the Southern Ocean, which is 8 percent windier and 5 percent more likely to produce extreme waves than it was 33 years ago.

"Although increases of 5 and 8 percent might not seem like much, if sustained into the future such changes to our climate will have major impacts," Young said in a statement. "These changes have impacts that are felt all over the world.”

The authors said the precise role that climate change is playing in this trend is still unclear, because interactions between the oceans, the atmosphere, and global climate are so complex. It’s possible that the seas are becoming stormier due to warming temperatures, and that stormier conditions in turn contribute to extreme weather events.

“Estimates of future ocean wind and wave states, and whether extreme conditions are changing, are important elements of projections of total sea level,” the authors said in the paper.

For centuries, sailors have told tales of freak waves and hurricane winds out on the water. Now it seems as if the ocean is shaping up for an even stormier future, and one that will increasingly affect coastal communities in addition to seafarers.

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