Microseismological evidence for a changing wave climate in the northeast Atlantic Ocean

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One possible consequence of a change in climate over the past several decades is an increase in wave heights, potentially threatening coastal areas as well as the marine industry1,2,3,4. But the difficulties in observing wave heights exacerbates a general problem of climate-change detection: inhomogeneities in long-term observational records owing to changes in the instruments or techniques used, which may cause artificial trends5,6. Ground movements with periods of 4–16 seconds, known as microseisms, are associated with ocean waves and coastal surf 7,8,9,10, and have been recorded continuously since the early days of seismology. Here we use such a 40-year record of wintertime microseisms from Hamburg, Germany, to reconstruct the wave climate in the northeast Atlantic Ocean. For the period 1954–77, we detect an average of seven days per month with strong microseismic activity, without a significant trend. This number increases significantly in the second half of the record, reaching approximately 14 days of strong microseisms per month. The implied increase in northeast Atlantic wave height over the past 20 years parallels increased surface air temperatures11 and storminess12 in this region, suggesting a common forcing.

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Figure 1: Correlation between daily microseism data (periods 6–8 s) from an old Wiechert pendulum and a modern Sprengnether seismometer for January–March 1975.
Figure 2: Time series of the wintertime microseisms recorded at the station HAM (Hamburg, Germany) over the last four decades.


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We thank G. Spars for assistance in analysing the historical seismological records. This work benefited from support of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft for the SFB 512 “Cyclones and the North Atlantic Climate System”.

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Correspondence to I. Grevemeyer.

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