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Arctic ice and big waves

November 2019

September 2020

A group of research scientists from the University of Washington spent a cold and dark month aboard the R/V Sikuliaq in the Arctic to learn more about how big stormy waves interact with sea ice just trying to form in November.

In September of 2020, despite the challenges Covid-19 has unleashed on the science community (and everyone), a reduced science team is returning to the Arctic to retrieve moorings that have been diligently collecting data over the last 10 months. Hopefully all of the moorings can be recovered!

Sik in ice.jpg
The science stuff

Content from the University of Washington's CODA website


Arctic coastlines, and in particular the northern coast of Alaska, are eroding at rates of meters per year. Coastal flooding events are becoming more common, as reductions in seasonal sea ice create large fetches for autumn storms. The proposed work concerns the oceanographic factors associated with coastal erosion and flooding, which are distinct from the geologic controls. Key among these oceanographic factors is the previously demonstrated increasing trend in surface wave activity throughout the western Arctic.

Field observations will be collected and a coupled modeling system will be developed that together quantify the wave-ice-ocean interactions along the northern coast of Alaska. This new model will be applied, after calibration and validation with the field observations, to generate a 20-year hindcast. The hindcast will be used to investigate the climate signals in Arctic wave–ice–ocean coupling. The results will determine:

  • The significance of coastal protection via scattering and dissipation of waves by sea ice

  • The thermodynamic and mechanical effects of increasing wave energy

  • The changes in coastal flooding and circulation associated with increasing wave momentum



The Arctic coastal region is extensively used for subsistence, e.g., hunting, fishing, and gathering. Commercial activities, such as oil drilling and cargo shipping, are also concentrated along Arctic coasts. Along the northern coast of Alaska, areas such as the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska (NPRA) and the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area (TLSA) support local In˜upiaq communities and provide undisturbed regions for diverse wildlife.

As the whole Arctic shifts into a modern epoch, with a more seasonal ice cover and warmer temperatures, the Arctic coastal processes are shifting as well. Storm systems with strong wave events now occur more often in the Arctic, with less ice to protect the coast. These storm events cause coastal flooding and erosion, with associated damage to infrastructure.


The overall goal of this proposal is to improve scientific understanding of wave–ice–ocean interactions along the Arctic coast, with particular attention to the oceanographic parameters that affect erosion. The proposed work will directly observe offshore wave conditions and shoreward wave transformations in the presence of a variety of ice conditions. Results will inform a model capable of resolving wave–ice interactions, coastal circulation, and water temperatures under changing Arctic ice conditions. The specific objectives are to:

  • Quantify the role of reduced sea ice in causing increased wave action along the Arctic coast

  • Understand the wave–ice dissipation and scattering occurring in the seasonal ice zone along the coast

  • Develop hindcast climatology and forecast capability for coastal wave conditions, circulation, and

  • water temperature

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