The Beaufort Sea in Arctic Ocean is usually frozen. The water is covered with ice most of the time. But researchers have recorded giant waves, as high as 16 feet, just north of Alaska. Swells of that size have stunned the scientists because they have the potential to break up Arctic ice much faster than expected, thanks to rapid global warming. The North is changing, and it’s changing fast as the sea ice retreats due to global warming.

Arctic ocean

The largest single wave in Arctic Ocean was 29 feet

Jim Thomson of the University of Washington recorded the wave measurements with the help of sensors. The house-size waves were measured during a September 2012 storm. Thomson told The Washington Post that 16 feet swells were the average. The biggest single wave was about 29 feet. Findings of the study appeared in the Geophysical Researchers Letters recently.

Until recently, the Arctic Ocean remained ice-covered throughout the summer, so there were no waves to measure. But the area of open water is increasing. Thomson said the Arctic ice never retreated more than 100 miles during summer in the past. But in 2012, it retreated well over 1,000 miles. The expanded ice retreat leaves much of the Beaufort Sea ice-free by the end of summer.

Arctic Ocean could soon see ice-free summer

Wind blowing across the open water creates whitecaps, which slowly turn into small waves. These small waves consolidate into giant waves that carry more energy in a single punch. The size of swells increases with the travel distance over the open water. An increased expanse of open water means bigger waves. Giant swells would increase the pace of ice breakup in the Arctic Ocean, eventually causing an “ice-free summer.” It will have wide-ranging implications for the ice-water-air system.

Thomson and his colleagues are conducting a large project this summer to assess the relative importance of the ice retreat compared to melting. They have to use sensors beneath the surface because satellites provide only a rough estimate of wave heights. Satellites don’t give precise measurements for storm events.