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Big waves Praia Do Norte Nazaré

Praia Do Norte has always had giant waves, but a new study found it’s likely they’ll get even bigger. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Inertia

A study that looked at over 30 years’ worth of wind and wave measurements from all over the world found that the highest waves have gotten five percent higher. 

You know, of course, that waves are created by wind blowing over water. The study, titled “Multiplatform evaluation of global trends in wind speed and wave height,” was published on April 25 in the journal Science. Ian Young, an engineering professor at the University of Melbourne and a co-author of the study, analyzed data taken from 31 satellites that are floating around in space measuring wind and waves back here on planet Earth. Young and his team used 4 billion measurements from the years between 1985 and 2018, then put them side by side against the data from nearly 100 buoys all over the world.

The study found that winds are getting progressively stronger which is creating larger waves, especially in the Southern Ocean. The ocean around Antarctica generally is an indicator of what’s going to happen in the South Pacific, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.

Overall, since 1985, winds in the area sped up by just over 3 miles per hour—some 8 percent—which created waves that averaged nearly a foot higher, which averages out to about a 5 percent increase. “These changes will have impacts that are felt all over the world,” said Young in a statement.


According to Michael Mann, a professor at Atmospheric Science at Penn State University, the study’s findings correlate with his research on the effects climate change is having on the oceans. Warming oceans invariably mean larger storms. Rising temperatures are directly linked to the increasing intensity in hurricanes we’ve seen in the last few decades.

It’s a complicated thing to explain in a few digestible sentences, but in a nutshell, water evaporating from the ocean feeds into the clouds. The warmer the water, the more energy available for the storm. That’s not the only factor, though—when winds change speed quickly higher in the atmosphere, storms spin faster. Storm science is constantly evolving and has a million moving parts, but it is a certainty that warming oceans create much larger storm systems.

Young, however, did hedge a little bit on stating that faster winds are tied directly to a warming climate. He said that increased wind speeds could be a result of variations in climate like the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, which, if you’re a surfer, you know well.


Now, you might not think that one measly foot in wave height would amount to much, but Young says it’s reason for concern. “If sustained into the future,” he said, “such changes to our climate will have major impacts.”

Mann agrees with that sentiment. “There is the potential for more extreme winds associated with individual storms,” Professor Mann told NBC News MACH in an email, “and greater wave heights as a result. More extreme weather, wind speeds and wave heights of course place greater stress on our infrastructure and pose greater threats to property and life.”

So while it can’t be said for sure right now what will happen going forward or what changes to our way of life we’ll inevitably have to make, Young and his team are trying their best to predict the future. They’re still poring over the data in an attempt to refine climate models to predict the impossible-to-predict ocean waves, which would help immensely—not just to surfers, but to science in general.



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