Rogue Waves

There has always been ocean lore that proclaims rogue, monster waves rising 80, 90, or 100 feet high or more. Of course, these are not eye-witness accounts. Men in wooden ships don’t survive such an encounter. There was the story of the Alaskan Tlingit Indian woman who returned from berry picking to find her entire village disappeared. The debris field evidence on the shoreline indicated that the ocean had risen up and fell upon the village. The wave would have been more than 100 feet high to cause the damage. Experts of the day dismissed stories about such waves because they seemingly violated basic principles of ocean physics.

It was only 19 years ago when the British research ship Discovery was caught for seven days in a punishing North Sea storm that legend became scientific fact. The battered ship straggled into dock, and grateful scientists unlashed themselves from their bunks, tiptoeing around bashed furniture and shattered glass. They discovered that despite the Armageddon-like conditions, the ship’s research collecting devices had kept on working. And indeed, they recorded seas consistently 60 feet high, with some waves spiking at 90 feet and higher. The evidence was in, and soon became overwhelming as downward looking satellites began confirming that rogue waves rose out of the world’s oceans with alarming frequency. In the decade the followed, there is a measurable increase in the frequency of such monster waves.

New Year’s Day in 1995, when a rogue wave struck the Draupner oil installation in the Norwegian North Sea. Equipped with a downward-pointing laser, the platform recorded a 26-meter wave spiking out of a sea filled with 11.8-meter waves — a nautical Bigfoot caught in a high-resolution snapshot. This hard evidence turned maritime myth into fact. Researchers have since determined that rogue waves probably claimed 22 supertankers and more than 500 lives in the second half of the 20th century alone.

What explains this phenomena? If you would like to read about a theory to explain rogue waves that use LDT (large deviation theory), a bit of nonlinear Schrödinger equation application then click here. Not your thing? Here’s a good read: The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean available on Amazon. The author interviews mariners, wave scientists, insurance companies and extreme surfers! It is a fascinating book.

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