Warming Oceans, Stronger Swells: Big Wave Surfers Ride More Powerful Waves
Last December and January, Washburn drew quite a few waves.
As they grew older, the level of chatter from surfers riding them watching larger and more powerful swells at spots like Mavericks increased.
As temperatures and ocean waters warm, evaporation increases, pumping more energy into the jet stream, generating more fierce storms over the open ocean, the genesis of towering waves of the Mavericks.
Bianca Valenti, a San Franciscan and one of the best big wave surfers in the world, loaded the monster waves of the Mavericks more than a dozen times last winter.
“It doesn’t seem normal,” she said recently. “It’s so crazy. It feels like a tipping point, in a way. Like how the fires this season seemed to last so long.
Oceanographers at UC Santa Cruz actually quantified research published in the journal Nature how ocean wave energy has increased over a period of about eight decades due to climate change.
“Warming of the high seas, a consequence of anthropogenic global warming, is changing the global wave climate, making the waves stronger,” the researchers wrote.
The research team, led by UC Santa Cruz coastal scientist Borja Reguero, used a new indicator of sea level rise and climate change, using the potential energy transport of the wind towards the waves. (In scientific parlance, this is called “the power of the waves.”)
Reguero’s research shows that global annual wave power increased by an average of 0.4% per year from 1948 to 2017, with an annual increase of 2.3% since 1994.
Basically bigger storms create bigger waves and Washburn is adding more designs to her schedule.
The discussion of wave energy, essentially wave energy, existed previously in the scientific literature, but Reguero’s group were the first to use this parameter to identify a long-term trend as an effect of climate change.
Reguero’s study is particularly important for California, a state that does not suffer from hurricanes but suffers from cliff erosion, the disappearance of beaches and disturbed marine ecosystems like kelp forests, all of which are exacerbated by more powerful waves hitting the coastline.
“It’s really important in California, where wave action is basically the main driver of coastal dynamics,” Reguero said.
These types of wind-driven waves contribute to coastal flooding, inundating seaside towns like Del Mar in Southern California and Coastal towns in the Bay Area like East Palo Alto, sediment transport, remodeling of headlands, bays and open coastal areas.
Ocean researchers who study satellite measurements and buoys have long known that waves, especially in the North Pacific, are changing.
“But now we have more concrete evidence that climate change is affecting global waves,” Reguero said.
The warming could improve the spots of big waves. Everywhere else? Not really
The impacts of climate change on surfing in California are complicated, varied, and different from break to break. And in many places, rising tides could actually choke off some breaks in surfing, while changing direction of ocean waves could cause some swells to completely miss certain breaks.
The impact of humans could also play a role. Coastal towns could respond to rising tides by building dikes and other protections, which could destroy conditions in some places.
It’s easy to guess where public officials would land if given the choice to strike a balance between the need to protect coastal communities and the quality of a surf break or two. But the equation is more complicated for cities like Santa Cruz, with some of the best and most consistent waves in the world, a crazy surf city that has built an identity around the sport.
Nik Strong-Cvetich, CEO of Save the Waves, an organization that advocates for the protection of surf ecosystems, including the flora, fauna and surrounding communities, has examined the climate as a threat in Santa Cruz.
“Climate change probably improves big waves,” Strong-Cvetich said. “But overall it’s probably harmful to the sport of surfing in California. There are probably more points that will be lost than improved, overall. Probably for surfing it is negative, although it is a little better for surfing big waves.
In 2015, Dan Reineman, surfer and oceanographer at CSU Channel Islands, interviewed over a thousand Californian surfers about the conditions that make their local breaks the most optimal.
Using this information as input data into sophisticated climate models, he estimated that more than a third of California surf spots are endangered or threatened by sea level rise, with only a small percentage in improvement.
“There is a very strong connection in surfing between the quality of the waves, the way they break and the depth of the water,” said Reineman. “On a daily basis, the tide is what makes the biggest difference in this depth. Add the sea level rise due to climate change to that equation and it’s all going to be deeper. “
This is a big deal in a state with millions of surfers. (Reineman’s research notes a 20-year-old California surfing census that had 1.1 million surfers in the state.)
“Surf waves are one of the most important resources on our coast,” Reineman said.
When Ryan Seelbach, a professional surfer from San Francisco, began to engage in research from Reineman and other climate and wave science, he realized that Santa Cruz could be altered by climate change.
“With so much water flowing over the reef, it has a big impact,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, Santa Cruz is going to be hit hard. There just aren’t too many places you can surf there at high tide. “
A seemingly endless season of pristine surf days with dizzying waves
Surfing in Mavericks this winter was amazing with a week after week filled with incredible surf days, in part thanks to La Niña conditions which maintained a ridge of high pressure over California, deflecting storms that would normally have soaked the bay area to the north. The storm winds pushed the swell south directly onto the northern California coast.
In a typical year, Mavericks is only surfable for a few days.
A notoriously fickle surf break near Half Moon Bay, conditions at Mavericks are only good for surfing during a significant northwest swell, often generated by storms and winds raging halfway around the world in the North Pacific, and especially only during the winter months. .
Some years there is nothing. Just the great ocean. For several days, the water on the rocky reef is as calm as a lake.
But the good days? When the conditions are right, the waves of Mavericks transform into blue monsters, well above 15 meters, some of the largest surfable waves in the world.
Last winter surfers like Valenti and Washburn had the opportunity to ride Mavericks for dozens of days, both describing the season as one of the best of their careers.
“Breathtaking. It’s the best winter I can remember, ”said Valenti.
She and other surfers of her caliber are more organized, better funded and trained, and hold a brighter spotlight than at any time in the history of the sport. Talent is at its peak as swells serve larger and more powerful sets.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Valenti and his fellow Bay Area big wave surfers are thrilled with the situation. They are, after all, earthly creatures affected by climate change in the same way as anyone else in the region.
It’s not much fun surfing when a blanket of wildfire smoke hangs across the California coast.
But are they excited about the opportunity to ride the biggest, most powerful waves that a human has ever had the courage to paddle?