The Antarctic marginal ice zone (MIZ) is a highly dynamic region where sea ice interacts with ocean surface waves generated in ice-free areas of the Southern Ocean. Improved large-scale (satellite-based) estimates of MIZ extent and variability are crucial for understanding atmosphere–ice–ocean interactions and biological processes and detection of change therein. Legacy methods for defining the MIZ are typically based on sea ice concentration thresholds and do not directly relate to the fundamental physical processes driving MIZ variability. To address this, new techniques have been developed to measure the spatial extent of significant wave height attenuation in sea ice from variations in Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) surface heights. The poleward wave penetration limit (boundary) is defined as the location where significant wave height attenuation equals the estimated error in significant wave height. Extensive automated and manual acceptance/rejection criteria are employed to ensure confidence in along-track wave penetration width estimates due to significant cloud contamination of ICESat-2 data or where wave attenuation is not observed. Analysis of 304 ICESat-2 tracks retrieved from four months of 2019 (February, May, September and December) reveals that sea-ice-concentration-derived MIZ width estimates are far narrower (by a factor of ∼ 7 on average) than those from the new technique presented here. These results suggest that indirect methods of MIZ estimation based on sea ice concentration are insufficient for representing physical processes that define the MIZ. Improved large-scale measurements of wave attenuation in the MIZ will play an important role in increasing our understanding of this complex sea ice zone.