The notoriously wicked weather of the Southern Ocean recently spawned what researchers are declaring was the largest wave ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.
On the evening of May 9, a weather buoy moored near Campbell Island, an uninhabited subantarctic island of New Zealand, detected a wave measuring 23.8 meters (78 feet) during the passage of a fast-developing, low-pressure cell. The measurement eclipses the previous record for wave height in the Southern Hemisphere, a 19.4-meter (63-foot) wave detected in 2017. The buoys, monitored by MetOcean Solutions, are giving researchers unique insights into the incredible storms that rage through this poorly studied part of the world.
"The Southern Ocean is a unique ocean basin and is the least studied despite occupying 22% of the global ocean area," Senior Oceanographer Dr. Tom Durrant said in a statement. "The persistent and energetic wind conditions here create enormous fetch for wave growth, making the Southern Ocean the engine room for generating swell waves that then propagate throughout the planet — indeed surfers in California can expect energy from this storm to arrive at their shores in about a weeks time!"
The monster wave on May 9 wiped out the previous record-setter, a 63-foot-tall giant detected in 2017. (Photo: MetOcean)
What's interesting about this particular wave is that it likely was not the largest. Because the buoy is solar-powered, it only has enough power to measure ocean conditions for just 20 minutes every three hours.
"It is likely that the peak heights during this storm were actually much higher, with individual waves greater than 25 m being possible as the wave forecast for the storm show larger wave conditions just north of the buoy location," shared Durrant.
While the buoy didn't capture an image of this massive nighttime wave, there are videos of similar conditions out there. Check out the scene below of a New Zealand naval ship making its way through extremely heavy seas in the Southern Ocean.
Unlike the Northern Hemisphere, which typically experiences extreme seas during the winter months, the Southern Hemisphere is a hotbed for frequent storm formation all year round. MetOcean currently has seven instruments deployed, with the publicly available information intended to shed light on wave physics under extreme conditions in the region.
"This is exactly the sort of data we were hoping to capture at the outset of the program," MetOcean Solutions General Manager Dr. Peter McComb said in a statement. "We know that the speed of these storms plays an important role in the resultant wave climate and that has great relevance under both the existing and climate change scenarios."