Are Rogue Waves a myth?

Rogue waves

Rogue waves were believed to be myths or waves that only occurred once a century in the oceans. People have thought for centuries they were tall tales and myths that sailors told during shore leave. They said these freak waves rose out of the sea as a vertical wall of water that crashed into a ship without warning.

Hole in the sea and freak waves

Prior to the freak wave crashing into the ship there would be a trough so deep it was described by sailors who were on a ship when a freak wave struck as a “hole in the sea.” Legends about the rogue waves often said that ships encountering these freak waves sank immediately and were never seen again.

Rogue waves sweeps over NOAA boat. NOAA

1993 a rogue wave struck a tanker broadside near Valdez, Alaska
Photo by Captain Roger Wilson, NOAA Weather

Predictable natural waves

Large and dangerous waves are often encountered by ships during hurricanes, subduction zone earthquakes sometimes create megatsunami waves that form after a landslide. Each of these naturally occurring waves are predictable and therefore do not belong in the same category as freak waves that come out of nowhere.

  • During the 2004 megathrust earthquake that spawned tsunamis that struck all around the Indian Ocean they were the result of plate movement on the ocean floor.
  • Hurricanes cause large storm waves that can reach 7 meters (23 feet) in height. Extremely large and dangerous conditions during these storms can create waves that are 15 meters (49 feet) tall.
  • Large landslides falling into a small bay have caused giant waves. On July 9, 1958 two fishing boats in Lituya Bay, Alaska were struck by a mega tsunami wave after an 8.3 earthquake triggered a landslide. The wave height reached 1720 feet, the tallest wave ever recorded. One of the fishing boats road out the wave and the two men aboard were able to tell what had occurred.

Using radar to study the waves

Rogue waves are different. They arrive out of nowhere and research has confirmed they reach up to 35 meters (115 feet) in height. They also seem to be a natural phenomenon that occur in all the oceans on our planet. Project MaxWave researchers from the GKSS Research Centre in 2004 used ESA satellites to identify the radar signatures of rogue waves during a three week study. They discovered 10 large freak waves during this period that were 25 meters (82 feet) or higher.

First time instruments recorded a wave

The first time instruments recorded a rogue wave was in the North Sea on New Year’s Day 1995. Prior to this incident many scientists believed they were only legends. An instrument on the Draupner Platform in the North Sea was recording waves that were flowing past the platform at between 5 to 7 meters (16 and 23 feet). A single monster wave hit the platform and it was 20 meters (66 feet) high.

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Highest waves ever recorded in the open ocean

The RRS Discovery, a British oceanographic research vessel in February 2000 was sailing in the Rockall Trough west of Scotland. The waves were the highest ever recorded in the open ocean. The largest waves that day were 18.5 meters (61 feet) high when the boat was struck by a giant wave 29.1 meters (95 feet) high.

filming the deadliest catch tv series

During the second year of filming the Deadliest Catch, a television program about crab fishermen in the Bering Sea, a rogue wave was recorded by a cameraman. The giant wave struck the Aleutian Ballad as the cameraman was filming a scene knocking him over and causing the ship to roll on its side. No one was killed in the incident but the ship was badly damaged and had to go back to port to be repaired. The “wall of water” as it broke over the bow of the ship can be seen with frightening clarity. The giant wave was 18 meters (60 feet high) when it struck the ship.

Designing ships to withstand these waves

Today ship builders are going to have to design boats to withstand these super waves. Satellite images and other data show that these waves occur frequently in the open ocean. They can strike without warning causing ships to sink within a few minutes. Designs for future ships need to take into consideration that these type of waves occur frequently in all the oceans on our planet.


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