TURBULENCE REPORT: Wind and Waves Increasing

Breaking wave

Good news for surfers… bad news for ocean sailors. The first long-term study of wind and wave heights to rely on satellite data rather than buoy reports and observations from ships has found that the ocean has been steadily getting windier and bumpier over the past quarter century. Unfortunately, little of this increase is translating into stronger wind when conditions are light (i.e., when it would actually be useful). Rather the increase is mostly in the gnarly end of the spectrum. That is, the big, ugly, scary winds and waves are getting bigger, uglier, and scarier.

The study, conducted by Ian Young, Alexander Babanin, and Stefan Zieger of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, found that extreme wind speeds have increased by 10 percent over the past 20 years and that extreme wave heights have increased by 7 percent. Also, the rate of increase is higher in the southern hemisphere than in the northern. Off the coast of southern Australia, for example, the height of the top one percent of big waves has increased by one meter, from 5 to 6 meters, since 1985.

These increases don’t necessarily indicate that global temperatures are rising. But it does mean that temperature differences, and hence pressure differences, around the globe are becoming greater.

Frankly, I have suspected all this for some time. Seems like a great excuse for buying a bigger boat, or at least for buying smaller storm sails. Or maybe it’s time–at last–to learn to surf.

Surfer wiping out
Photo by Clark Little

The study was published last Thursday in the journal Science. If you want to get into all the technical gobbledy-gook, you can read an abstract and buy a PDF of the full text here.


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