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Giant Arctic Waves May Break Ice Cover Over the Ocean

First Posted: Jul 31, 2014 10:37 AM EDT
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Melting sea ice is causing the Arctic to change, opening up sea passages and altering currents. Now, scientists have found that storms have the potential to create Arctic swell due to these newly open spaces and that these huge waves could add another unpredictable element to the region.

Arctic ice once retreated less than 100 miles from the shore. Yet in 2012, the ice retreated more than 1,000 miles. This, in turn, changed the dynamic of the region. Wind blowing across an open expanse of water can create whitecaps and then small waves; these, in turn, can form large swells.

"As the Arctic is melting, it's a pretty simple prediction that the additional open water should make waves," said Jim Thomson, the lead author of the new study, in a news release.

In fact, the researchers found that the melting in 2012 caused waves that were 16 feet high during the peak of a storm in mid-September. The high winds that howled through the Arctic combined with the open expanses of water to create the swells.

What's worrisome is that these waves could potentially break up even more ice when they crash against the shore. This, in turn, could lead to even more open water and even bigger waves. This could actually spell news for shipping and oil companies which have been eyeing the opportunity of an ice-free Arctic season, since they may now have to deal with the possibility of violent storms and large waves.

"The melting has been going on for decades," said Thomson. "What we're talking about with the waves is potentially a new process, a mechanical process, in which the waves can push and pull and crash to break up the ice."

Currently, there are several competing theories as to what happens when the waves approach and get into the ice. Finding out the physics of what happens could be crucial for predicting ice retreat in the future.

The findings are published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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