Climate Change Could Bring an End to Surfing’s Endless Summer

The days of gnarly waves may be a thing of the past for 25 percent of the world.

A surfer catching the big one—while he can—on Oahu. Because of the effects of climate change, surfing may go the way of the Dodo bird. (Joe McBride/Getty)

May 8, 2013
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world—a surfer truism if there ever was one. But maybe not for much longer. 

Australian climatologists have published a study that compared results from five global research groups, each of which used different modeling approaches to develop future wave-climate scenarios.

Their conclusions: "We find an agreed projected decrease in annual mean significant wave height over 25.8% of the global ocean area." Translation, as succinctly put by Motherboard, "Surfing is going to suck for a quarter of the world."

If you think this sounds a bit counterintuitive given the fact the U.S. and much of the world seems to be getting hit by ever-larger storms whose swells cause massive flooding, you're not alone.

But Curt Storlazzi, a surfer and a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who studies coastlines, told Pacific Standard last year that when you're dealing with climate change, things aren't always as they seem. "Climate change makes extremes more extreme," said Storlazzi. Because, over time, "the waves between storms will get smaller even as the bigger waves get bigger, the average height of waves is likely to stay the same, and may even go down a bit."

This notion was seconded by David Revell, an environmental hydrologist, who explained that the number of days when surfers will find the perfect combination of tide, wind, and swell are going to be fewer and further between.

And according to Dr. Mark Hemer, the lead author of the new paper published by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, it's also not great for the beaches on which those waves crash. An estimated 10 percent of sandy coasts are becoming wider as they build seawards (around 50 percent of Australia's coast is sand), 70 percent are eroding, and the remaining 20 percent are stable.

What's a surfer to do? Put on a penguin suit and head south. The researchers found a likely increase in wave height across seven percent of the world's oceans, predominantly in the Southern Ocean—that would be the ocean encircling Antarctica.

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