The Heat Is Online

Giant Waves Increase With Warmer Oceans

2006: Year of Giant Waves

Discovery News, Dec. 20, 2006

Stormy weather all over the planet has caused a surge in the number of giant waves in 2006  perhaps a taste of what the surf could be like in a warmer world.

This year's remarkable waves began appearing in July in the winter-time seas of the Southern Hemisphere, where mega-wave surfers caught behemoths taller than five stories high off the coast of western Africa, western Australia and Tahiti. That's in all three southern oceans.

"These are by far the largest waves ever ridden in the Southern Hemisphere in the history of mankind," said Bill Sharp, a surfer and spokesman for the Billabong XXL Global Big Waves Awards surf riding competition.

Billabong XXL awards surfers every year for the largest waves ridden worldwide  based on photographic evidence of the rides.

"I don't know what it was," said Sharp of the surf surge, "but there has to be something going on."

Such large waves certainly must have existed in other years in the Southern Hemisphere, he said, but "they were like trees falling in a forest with no one to hear them."

In recent weeks the monster wave action has shifted to the Northern Hemisphere, where powerful storms in both the North Atlantic and North Pacific have kicked up some remarkable fifty-plus-footers.

Oversized surf made surprise appearances in places like France's Bay of Biscay, Spain's Playa Gris and from Oregon to the west coast of Mexico. Rides by several surfers in those areas are contending for the biggest wave of the April-to-March contest season, said Sharp.

Photos and videos of the contenders are available for viewing at

The largest verified wave ever ridden was a 70-footer by Pete Cabrinha of Maui, in 2004. Oddly enough, Hawaii  where big-wave surfing was pioneered  is one of the places big waves have been absent this year.

All monster waves are created by intense storms, which need space and the right position to produce giant surfable waves. There are many variables, Sharp explains.

"It needs to be 2,000 to 3,000 miles off the coast and organized so it's not just storm slop," said Sharp.

Such conditions could become more common as global warming revs up weather.

Already several teams of independent researchers have verified that over the last 50 years, more hurricanes in oceans worldwide are reaching Category 4 and 5 levels.

And while this may be a morsel of good news to the handful of daring individuals who ride big waves, to anyone living in low-lying coastal areas, bigger waves will only make rising sea levels  another result of global warming  all the more disastrous.

"Sea level rise provides the background condition, but storms provide the energy," said geologist Laura Moore of Oberlin College in Ohio, referring to the coastal effects of global warming.

Moore studies changes now underway in the outermost barrier islands of North Carolina, which at just a few yards above sea level are particularly vulnerable.

Storm waves pick up sediments from the shallow areas near the shore and throw them over the tops of low-lying islands, making the islands gradually migrate toward the mainland. They also pound coastlines harder, which means more erosion and damage to coastal structures.

By the end of the 21st century, said Moore, it's possible the double whammy of sea level rise and intense storms will have completely shifted the barrier islands' positions.

Meanwhile, it looks likely that global warming will help someday topple Cabrinha's world record ride of 2004.