Big waves do not typically characterize the Arctic Ocean because its waters are usually covered with ice. It also requires large spans of open sea and strong wind to produce gigantic waves, but scientists who measured the waves in a part of the Arctic that has lost its ice cover because of the warming climate have detected waves the size of houses.

Jim Thomson, from the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington and W. Erick Rogers, from the Naval Research Laboratory at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, have measured waves that were over 16 feet in the Beaufort Sea, a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska and west of Canada's Arctic islands. The researchers said that their measurements are the only known wave measurements in the area because the region used to be covered with ice throughout summer.

Describing their findings in "Swell and sea in the emerging Arctic Ocean," which was published in the Geophysical Research Letters on May 5, the researchers reported that waves as high as 5 meters, or 16 feet, were created during a moderate storm that occurred in mid-September of 2012, which they attribute to high winds and the creation of more open water prompted by the melting of the ice.

Thomson said that the melting of the Arctic, which has been happening for decades, has something to do with the creation of the giant waves. With more open water comes bigger waves and as these surfs grow bigger, they catch more wind, which results in waves that move very fast and with high energy, a phenomenon that is seen to have significant implications in the region.

For shipping and oil companies that hope to use the area as shipping lanes, for instance, the bigger waves could pose serious dangers. "Almost all of the casualties and losses at sea are because of stormy conditions, and breaking waves are often the culprit," Thomson said.

Waves that move with more energy could also speed up the break-up of ice that already occurs in the Arctic due to the changing climate, and this could lead to significant changes in the historical conditions of the region, which could eventually impact ecosystems.

"It is possible that the increased wave activity will be the feedback mechanism which drives the Arctic system toward an ice-free summer," Rogers and Thomson wrote [pdf]. "This would be a remarkable departure from historical conditions in the Arctic, with potentially wide-ranging implications for the air-water-ice system and the humans attempting to operate there."

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