Reports of towering waves barrelling across the Southern Ocean no doubt conjure images of disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure.

Indeed, our instant fascination with waves the height of an eight-storey apartment block explains why a YouTube video showing comparably gentler conditions in the ocean has been viewed nearly half a million times.

The appeal of seeing a large Navy vessel pit itself against mountainous swells distracts us from the real story that these increasingly larger waves, in an increasingly wilder ocean, are telling us.


Our planet is becoming a frightening place under climate change.

HMNZS Otago in the Southern Ocean. / Royal New Zealand Navy

A study referenced in today's feature article by Herald science reporter Jamie Morton found extreme waves in the Southern Ocean had increased in height by 5 per cent in just three decades.

Scientists say it's still unclear whether this is climate change at play – but in any case, if this trend continued, it would compound climate-driven impacts like sea level rise.

Similar signals from elsewhere are growing impossible to ignore, including heatwaves that are being made more likely to occur with climate change.

More troubling signs are there, largely unseen, in our deep south.

Last month, scientists reported how parts of Antarctica, keeping in its icy stores an equivalent 60m of sea level rise, was melting at a pace five times faster than the 1990s.

There are fears, too, for how much longer the Southern Ocean will be able to save us from ourselves, by sucking up a whopping third of the carbon dioxide we send into the atmosphere.

Surveys tell us the majority of New Zealanders believe our country should act boldly on climate change, even if others don't.


The tens of thousands of school- children who took to our streets in protest over recent weeks, anxious over the uncertain future they will inherit, angrily deliver our leaders the same mandate.

It's unclear whether this Government's Zero Carbon Act, finally unveiled last month, will prove enough to meet their demands.

Greenpeace's Russel Norman dismissed the bill, which proposes a split target that prioritises tackling CO2 emissions over the biogenic methane that flows from our farms, as toothless.

Chief among his concerns was that the bill had specifically written out any mechanism that would hold any person or body to account for not adhering to it.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw wittily remarked that he wanted the final version of the legislation to leave everyone "equally unhappy".

But, with a UN report warning the world has mere decades to radically decarbonise and spare itself most catastrophic consequences, the time for such compromise has likely long passed.

This emergency appears lost on US President Donald Trump, who inexplicably told Prince Charles this week that climate change "goes both ways", and Australia's freshly elected Scott Morrison, whose conservative coalition has resisted plans to rapidly cut down on carbon and coal.

Climate change will shift our coastlines, cities and economy.

The Southern Ocean's giant waves should shift our climate apathy, before it's too late.

NOTE: This editorial has been amended to add more context around the potential role of climate change in the weather events mentioned, and to clarify that the Antarctic ice sheet study refers to parts of Antarctica, not the whole continent.