How Global Warming Could Make Surfing Better

illustration_5Illustration by Noa Emberson

So I was at dinner with my wife and her colleagues, all marine biologists of some sort, and one of them had just returned from Barrow, Alaska. Barrow is way up in the Arctic Circle, and I mentioned to him that I’d heard that the ice was melting so substantially that the Arctic would soon offer a legitimate passage for container ships. “Yeah,” he said, “but boats up there are running into a lot of issues because there’s been so much more swell lately. The ice is melting, which means there’s more water, which means there’s more fetch for the wind to make waves…”

You can see where this is going. My mind drifted from the conversation and into a daydream. Pioneering The Last Frontier in a refitted icebreaker, dancing alone in the empty surf of a Slurpee sea. Eventually, as a sign of goodwill, I’d bring boards and suits for the local Inuit people. They would reciprocate with ziplock bags of bearded seal jerky. I would eat it, swear I’d never tell my wife, then use the energy from the fatty meat to fuel my next session. I’d get barreled while a curious polar bear watched me from the last remaining chunk of healthy ice. Floating by, he’d cock an eyebrow and say, “Got any more of that jerky?”

This is, of course, optimistic. This is two Christmases when your parents get divorced. This is deep powder runs after a city-stopping snowfall. This is hope in Shawshank, excelsior in the mental ward and a truth that might be more convenient than we’d thought. The world is a scary place. A scary, hot place. We could sit back and melt, yelling at The Right for not believing in global warming while we sandbag our doorsteps. Or, we could go surfing.

Jump on in, the water’s fine. And getting finer by the day. Global sea surface temperatures aren’t skyrocketing, but they are going up at about one degree per century. Doesn’t seem like much, but for an entire ocean, the trickle-down effect from that change is more like a flood. For surfers, this not only means eventual trunks in Southern California and short arms in San Francisco, but stronger storms. Remember Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast? Or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines? Well, before the catastrophic damage and triple-digit death tolls, there were waves, baby! Hurricanes are caused when evaporating ocean water feeds a swirling mass of clouds, so the warmer the water the bigger the storms the bigger the waves the bigger the fun. Go surfing. Just think twice before taking over your parents’ home insurance policy.

Warm water doesn’t just keep you toasty and fuel hurricanes, it also expands. So between the thermal expansion of warming water and melting ice, sea levels are rising. In the last 100 years or so the ocean has risen between 4 and 12 inches and by 2100 it’s predicted to rise another 2.5 to 6.5 feet. Feet! This means the gurgly, unrideable slab near your house will slowly morph into an approachable, almond-shaped tube and the dry reef next door will transform into a slab. Yes, your current favorite wave will probably turn to mush and if you live in southern Florida or New York, your house might actually be submerged. But think about it: If your house is underwater, maybe it will form an artificial reef that becomes your new fave wave. Just imagine the conviction with which you’ll claim local status when you’re literally surfing your home break!

Feeling guilty about all the lemonade you’re about to make from this global lemon? Don’t. There’s nothing to be ashamed of and anyway, exploiting natural disasters isn’t a foreign concept to surfers. Maybe you’ve enjoyed the new reefs formed by earthquakes in the Indonesian archipelago. Or maybe you’ve gotten barreled in Southern California while Santa Ana winds fueled devastating wildfires. Or maybe you’ve ripped the forerunners of a Cat 4 hurricane before you scurried home to board the windows. That’s OK. In fact, that’s good. You are doing what you love and you can’t stop earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, or apparently global warming, what with the “irreversible damage” label it’s recently earned. So go surf — guilt-free — and let your post-session buzz be the light breeze to cool your loved ones during the next record-breaking heat wave. A rising tide floats all ships and if you’re a surfer, so does melting ice.*

*In the likely event that I’m wayyy off on all this, please consider buying a Prius.

—Taylor Paul