The Southern Ocean is a violent place. It’s where many of the massive swells that run into Teahupoo and Cloudbreak are born, and recently, a wave of nearly unheard of proportions was measured there.
Just south of New Zealand’s Campbell Island, a temporary buoy is bobbing around in a water depth of around 500 feet. It’s only got a few months left, but the New Zealand Defense Force, along with a company called MetOcean Solutions, chucked it out there for six months because the Southern Ocean is worthy of more research. Remember when Fiji went off last week? Well, the same swell that tickled Fiji’s perfect reefs also produced a wave that was 64 feet. In the open ocean. That’s a big wave. In fact, it’s one of the biggest ever recorded. “This is one of the largest waves recorded in the Southern Hemisphere,” Senior Oceanographer Dr. Tom Durrant said on MetOcean’s website. “This is the world’s southern-most wave buoy moored in the open ocean, and we are excited to put it to the test in large seas.”
Here’s the deal, though: the ocean is a very big place, and waves in excess of 60 feet are probably relatively common–relatively being the operative word. “These storms are still uncommon events, kept to a few events per year — or at least we think,” wrote Charlie Hutcherson on Surfline. “There are scant wave buoys covering Southern Hemisphere’s oceans compared to the northern half, with few open-ocean sampling stations beyond ship reports (and they generally try to avoid the stormiest parts of the sea for good reason). So while the 64ft wave is one of the largest recorded in the region, it is doubtful it would even sniff a Southern Ocean record if there was better spatial coverage of wave buoys.”
The Southern Ocean, of course, isn’t the only place that produces waves on a scale this size. Scotland, which isn’t exactly known for its balmy vacation weather, holds the record. Back in 2013, a buoy off the Outer Hebrides recorded a wave of 82 feet.
The next few months of studying the Southern Ocean should prove to be interesting ones. “During the depths of winter, Southern Ocean waves are enormous, with significant wave heights averaging over 5 m, and regularly exceeding 10 m,” Durrant continued. “Individual waves can double that size. Accurate measurements of these conditions will help us understand waves and air-sea interactions in these extreme conditions. This, in turn, will lead to improvements in the models used to simulate the waves, providing better forecasts, both for the Southern Ocean and for the wider region. Waves generated in the Southern Ocean have far-reaching effects, contributing significantly to the wave climate in all the major ocean basins.”