Climate change shown to be making waves for all the wrong reasons

14 Jan 2019

Image: © Drew/

While great news for surfers, an increase in the strength of waves in recent years is directly linked to climate change.

A global rise in sea levels caused by the onset of climate change has been a talking point for many years now, but a recent study published to Nature Communications has, for the first time, analysed how it affects wave climate as well.

The research team behind the study from the University of California Santa Cruz showed that the energy of ocean waves has been growing globally over the past number of decades, with a direct association between ocean warming and wave energy.

This energy contained within ocean waves is transmitted from the wind and transformed into wave motion, resulting in a metric called wave power. The researchers have linked the warming of the upper oceans – measured as a rising trend in sea surface temperatures – to changing global wind patterns, resulting in stronger ocean waves.

“For the first time, we have identified a global signal of the effect of global warming in wave climate. In fact, wave power has increased globally by 0.4pc per year since 1948, and this increase is correlated with the increasing sea surface temperatures, both globally and by ocean regions,” said lead author Borja G Reguero.

Understanding how ocean waves respond to oceanic warming is believed to have important implications for coastal communities and their planned infrastructure and preparedness. Adding to future fears over their safety, the rise in sea levels will further aggravate these effects by allowing more wave energy to reach vulnerable shores.

While the study reveals a long-term trend of increasing wave energy, the effects of this increase are particularly apparent during the most energetic storm seasons, as seen during the winter of 2013-14 in the North Atlantic that battered western Europe.

Co-author of the paper, Fernando J Méndez of the Universidad de Cantabria, added: “Our results indicate that risk analysis neglecting the changes in wave power and having sea level rise as the only driver may underestimate the consequences of climate change and result in … maladaptation.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic