Warming Up to Global Warming

In an era of global warming, the overtly selfish question on surfers’ minds is how it will affect the surf. In an ironic twist, scientists are beginning to extrapolate that global warming, though increasing temperatures worldwide and catastrophically altering delicate balances of the earth, may in fact bring a trend of good waves. In fact, it’s going to pump. All thanks to an increase in storm activity in the tropics, as well as pushing arctic and antarctic longitudal storms towards the center of the earth.

The reason for this is the warming of water surface temperatures, a result of an increasingly warm atmosphere. A recent study by Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, suggests that hurricane strength and intensity has been rising alongside ocean temperatures, and is surpassing projected models for how storms should react to these changes. Of course hurricanes are fueled by warm water temps, which is why this could have such a positive effect on surf over the next few decades.

“As the world warms we expect more and more intense tropical hurricanes and cyclones,” explains James McCarthy, a biological oceanography professor at Harvard University. “Weather records are being set all the time now. We’re in an era of unprecedented extreme weather events.”

Opponents of this idea cite cyclical storm patterns, decades of increased hurricane activity and short-term changes like El Nino, to dispel the idea of a consistent trend. That theory, however, applies mostly to Atlantic-based hurricanes, which only churns out 12% of the worlds hurricanes and typhoons each year. According to National Geographic, “When [Kerry] Emanuel looked at the hurricane record in the North Atlantic, where the storms of most interest to U.S. residents form, he found that intensity fluctuated from decade to decade.”

Yet, according to Kerry, “If you look at a more global measure of this metric, you don’t see these strong inter-decadal swings. They cancel each other out between one ocean and the other. You see instead a large upward trend.” In other words things are getting more intense on a global scale.

Vic DeJesus, lead meteorologist for Wavewatch.com, takes a cautionary approach. “It’s a difficult issue to fully understand,” explains DeJesus. “And recent trends may not be a good indicator of whether or not global warming is directly responsible for the increased tropical activity. We’re working with limited data over a short time range so it’s important not to jump to hasty conclusions.”

There is also a hypothesis running through the scientific community that as global warming continues to melt the polar ice cap, North Pacific and North Atlantic storm systems will guide themselves closer to the Equator. For surfers this translates into larger and more frequent westerly swells in the NE Pacific and easterly swells in the NW Atlantic.

With large Pacific-based westerly swells backing up on surf forecast models like 747s at LAX, there seems to be some immediate validity to these claims. We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, when somebody brings up global warming at a holiday party, you can tell them the good news: waves are on the way. – John Fowler