By Emily Sohn
Thu Mar 24, 2011 02:01 PM ET
- Top oceanic wind speeds and wave heights have steadily increased over the last 23 years.
- If the trend continues, major storms may become more destructive in the coming decades.
- Climate change may or may not be to blame for the trend, but faster winds could have climate consequences.
The world is getting breezier, according to a new study, which found a slow but steady increase in top wind speeds across the oceans over the last 23 years.
Although global warming is a suspect, researchers can’t say for sure whether climate change is behind the growing gusts. The trend could simply be part of a natural and long-term cycle that pushes wind speeds both up and down over the course of many decades.
But if winds continue to pick up at the same rate, hurricanes could become far more damaging by the middle of the century. Among other implications, engineers would need to rethink they way they plan coastal and offshore structures.
“We may be observing an upward increase of something that, in the future, will go down again,” said Ian Young, a physical oceanographer at the Australian National University in Canberra. “However, the fact that we’re seeing this on a global basis in both the northern and the southern hemispheres suggests it may be a long-term trend rather than an oscillation. If we’re going to design things in the future, we may want to actually factor in oceanic waves going up.”
Winds over the oceans directly influence wave heights, and orbiting satellites use altimeters to regularly monitor both. Scientists are interested in these measurements because they affect the exchange of heat and gasses between water and sky. Winds also influence the frequency and strength of major storms.