Huge Waves in the Arctic Demonstrate Ice Loss—and Aggravate It

huge wildfires ArcticTemperatures there are rising at twice the global average rate, huge wildfires are sweeping through vast tracts of Canadian forest, and mysterious holes are appearing in Siberian permafrost. Throughout 2014, a recurring kink in the jet stream—possibly rooted in declining Arctic sea ice—has helped to alternately bake the West and chill out the East by disturbing the typically stable polar vortex.

Now, there’s a new side effect of the Arctic becoming increasingly ice-free: big waves.

The house-sized waves measured by oceanographer Jim Thomson and his research team during a Beaufort Sea storm in 2012 are bigger than any seen before in that part of the Arctic, where it’s warmer now than at any point since humans began living there 44,000 or so years ago. Previously, there was just too much ice for waves to form.

The waves are not just a symptom of the Arctic’s ice woes, though. They may accelerate the problems. According to research published earlier this year by Thomson and a colleague (PDF), the waves may be a mechanism for accelerating ice retreat, which in turn may cause even bigger waves.

The result, according to Thomson, is “a potentially new process”: a vicious cycle that is expected to ultimately end in an ice-free summertime Arctic within decades.

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