Matthew Alford, a La Jolla, California, oceanographer tracks the world's largest waves far under the sea.

By Marisa Spyker
May 12, 2015

Matthew Alford, a La Jolla, California, oceanographer tracks the world's largest waves far under the sea.Scientist Matthew Alford may enjoy hanging ten, but he has experienced the most epic waves in an entirely different way—by tracking behemoths as tall as 800 feet that could topple skyscrapers, were they visible. Instead, these waves happen miles below the ocean's surface—and they affect us in surprising ways.

That's why Alford founded a scientific research team called Wave Chasers five years ago, with the mission of traveling the world to study these undersea (or "internal") waves. "The Navy has been interested in researching them for decades because they've been known to throw submarines off course and could potentially harm, or even kill, divers," he says. "But we're just now beginning to understand their power."

Alford first became interested in internal waves while earning his PhD at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, where he is now a professor. "As a surfer, I drew a tight parallel between internal waves and the ones you see on the beach," he says. "They travel in much the same way—thousands of miles across oceans in sets." But because they aren't hampered by exposure to the air, internal waves are able to grow to more than 16 times the size of the average wave on land and travel for months without breaking. "They're not the kind you'd want to surf, because they move at a pace of only about 7 or 8 miles per hour," says Alford.

Still, their sheer size makes them a force within the sea. Internal waves play a vital role in stirring up nutrients from the ocean floor, mixing them through the water, and feeding many species of marine life. More importantly, though, they affect climate change. "When a wave breaks, it sweeps large amounts of cold water over warm water," says Alford, ultimately playing a large part in redistributing the ocean's heat. "So if internal waves are getting stronger, it could speed up climate change."

With a team of six scientists, engineers, and PhD students who make up his Wave Chasers group, Alford travels to undersea hot spots—areas around the globe with strong tidal currents, where many internal waves are formed—and deploys torpedo-shaped instruments to the ocean floor, where they are able to record the size, speed, and temperature of the waves. The team's next stop is the Arctic, where Alford believes strong winds are stirring up undersea turbulence. "The ice is steadily retreating, so more wind is blowing off into the ocean, which means more internal waves are forming," he says.

Until then, Alford will be catching waves a little closer to home. "My desk looks right out onto the beach, so a lot of the time I'll take an afternoon break and go out and surf," he says. "And most of the time, there are a few other Wave Chasers out there on their boards right next to me."

Photos: Thomas Moore