Large waves from ocean storms have a greater impact on the breakup and retreat of sea ice than previously thought.
This finding, reported in the journal Nature, suggests ocean waves can fracture sea ice hundreds of kilometres from the ice edge.
Sea ice is a feature of both polar regions and has an important role in regulating global climate.
Current climate models have been unable to fully explain or predict changes in sea ice, such as the retreat in the Arctic and the regional variations around the Antarctic.
Alison Kohout and Mike Williams of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand reveal that the effect of large ocean waves on sea ice has been under-appreciated.
In the Southern Ocean, storm-generated waves with heights greater than three metres are able to break sea ice hundreds of kilometres from the ice edge.
By comparing observed Antarctic ice edge positions with modelled wave heights between 1997 and 2009, they find that changing wave heights are associated with movements of the ice edge.
The scientists note that future wave heights are predicted to increase at the edge of the sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic.
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