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Climate change could fuel bigger summer waves in Southern California

Climate change could fuel bigger summer waves in Southern California

That would mean more erosion and flooding, but not necessarily better surf.

The waves that hit Southern California in the summer could be bigger and more frequent as the climate changes, accelerating erosion and increasing flooding along the coast, based on findings of two recent studies.

And while it might sound like a surfer’s dream, climate change also poses potential downsides for wave riders: Winter swells could lose some of their oomph while rising sea levels could drown many surf spots, leaving them unsurfable.

Big surf is one of several climate change-driven threats to the coast’s beaches, buildings, roads, train tracks and water infrastructure, with sea-level rise and increasingly extreme local rainstorms also contributing to hazards.

“All these other things play a role, but waves are one of the most important causes of coastal erosion and flooding,” said Brett Sanders, an engineering professor who leads a UC Irvine team in coastal flooding and erosion hazards research.

The two recent studies look at the effect of ocean warming and changing storm patterns on wave activity.

A 2019 study led by UC Santa Cruz researcher Borja Reguero documents the historical growth of what he calls “wave power,” determined largely by wave height and frequency. It found that from 1948 to 2008, wave power globally increased an average of nearly a half percent annually, but has jumped to 2.3% annually since 1994. The increase has been across all seas, but was greatest in the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica.

A 2021 study led by Joao Morim, who’s worked for the U.S. Geological Survey and its Australian counterpart, CSIRO, projects future “strong increases in extreme wave activity across tropics and high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere and a widespread decrease across most of the Northern Hemisphere.”
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