Rogue waves, reported by the sailors at least since the 19th century, long dismissed as nautical folklore, have emerged as a serious oceanic phenomenon. These towering, unpredictable waves have captivated sailors’ tales and puzzled scientists for centuries. Once considered mere myths, recent evidence has revealed their real and formidable presence, challenging our understanding of ocean dynamics and highlighting the unpredictable power of the sea.
What is a rogue wave?
A rogue wave is an extraordinary oceanic event characterized by its immense size, steepness, and sudden emergence. Significantly larger than surrounding waves, it stands out for its unexpected appearance and formidable power.
Also known as a freak wave, monster wave, killer wave, or extreme wave, a rogue wave presents a steep, almost wall-like form that can be daunting and hazardous. These waves have been a source of both awe and fear, representing the untamed and unpredictable nature of the sea. Their occurrence, while rare, poses a significant risk to ships and seafarers, embodying a phenomenon that intertwines maritime lore with scientific intrigue.
By definition, rogue waves are more precisely defined as waves whose height is more than twice the significant wave height (the mean wave height -trough to crest- of the highest third of the waves).
Rogue waves: a reality, or shipmen’s tales?
For centuries, seamen told stories about encounters with extremely big, ship-sinking waves, much bigger than any wave surrounding them. According to sailors, these waves were also so steep – almost vertical, insurmountable walls of water.
From Seafarers’ Legends to Scientific Recognition
Until 1995 (see the Draupner wave section below), scientists often dismissed these stories as absurd. But it’s normal given the rarity of credible eyewitnesses, as people who encountered these huge waves usually did not come back to tell their tale. Furthermore, sailors like made-up stories and exaggerating things. So, rogue waves were considered sailors’ yarn, just like other shipmen’s tales like giant sea monsters (i.e. Kraken) or mermaids.
In the past, not only sailors, but even scientists who witnessed a rogue wave were ridiculed: for example, in 1826, French scientist, explorer, and naval officer Captain Jules Dumont d’Urville (23 May 1790 – 8 May 1842) reported waves as high as 108 feet (33 meters) in the Indian Ocean with three colleagues as witnesses. He was publicly ridiculed by fellow scientist François Arago (26 February 1786 – 2 October 1853), the French mathematician, physicist, astronomer, and politician.
In the early 19th century, it was widely held that no wave could exceed 30 feet (9 meters).
Then, for almost 100 years, scientists and ship designers have used a mathematical system commonly called the Gaussian function (or Gaussian Sea or standard linear model) to predict wave height. According to this model, in a big storm sea with a significant wave height of 12 meters (39 feet), there will hardly ever be a wave higher than 15 meters (49 feet). If the average wave height is 12 meters (39 feet), the model predicts 30-meter (98 feet) waves can occur only once in ten thousand years.
But, as we will see soon, the reality was different.
The mysterious sinking of MS München
On December 11, 1978, the “MS München,” a massive 261-meter cargo ship belonging to Hamburg’s Hapag-Lloyd, was navigating the turbulent North Atlantic. With 28 crew members aboard, it was braving relentless hurricanes that have been lashing the area north of the Azores since late November. Gale-force winds, towering 15-meter waves, and freezing temperatures created a treacherous environment.
Amidst heavy snow and hail, visibility was near zero, but Captain Johann Dänekamp remained undaunted. The “München” was seasoned in weathering such formidable storms. It was 261.4 meters long (858 feet) with a draught of 11 meters (36 feet). Only six years old at the time, the ship was one of the newest and most modern carriers of its time. It was even considered as “unsinkable”.
In the early hours of December 12th, Jörg Ernst, the radio operator of the “München,” transmitted a brief message to the cruise ship “Caribe.” He reported damage to the bridge and shattered portholes. However, Heinz Löhmann, the radio operator on the “Caribe,” noted that Ernst’s tone didn’t convey a sense of alarm or distress.
But, just three hours later, the Greek Panamax freighter Marion received a distress call in the form of an SOS code from a huge German carrier named MS München, which was sailing in the North Atlantic. Marion relayed the message to the Soviet freighter Marya Yermolova and the German tug boat Titan. Automatic emergency signals were also received by multiple radio stations starting at 04:43.
No further calls were recorded after 07:34.
The initial search requested by HMCG was by RAF Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft, coordinated by SRCC RAF Mountbatten. They found nothing. The ship was lost without a trace as if it had never existed.
What followed was the biggest search and rescue operation ever conducted in the North Atlantic. For one week over, 13 aircraft from the United States, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and West Germany, and nearly 80 merchant and naval ships had searched for the München or her crew through an area the size of Mexico.
Despite the intense search operation, only a few life jackets, a single container, and four empty life rafts could be recovered. With these few remains, it was impossible to determine the cause of the sinking.
A week after it had begun, on the evening of December 20, the international search operation officially ended. The West German government and Hapag-Lloyd, the company that owns MS München, decided to search for two more days, with British and American forces supporting them.
Two months later, on February 16, the car transporter Don Carlos salvaged a floating lifeboat from the starboard side of MS München, the last object discovered from her. And this lifeboat provided some clues: the pins, which should have hung vertically, had been bent back from forward to aft, indicating the lifeboat hanging below it had been struck by a huge force, that had run from fore to aft of the ship and had torn the lifeboat from its pins.
The recovered lifeboat normally hung 20 meters (65 feet) above the waterline. A wave with enough power to do that damage would have needed significantly higher than 20 meters. With the existence of rogue waves then considered so statistically unlikely as to be near impossible (as explained above), the investigation finally concluded that the severe weather had somehow created an “unusual event” that had led to the sinking of the München.
MS München was neither the first ship suddenly disappeared in the middle of the ocean, nor the last one. But, all these incidents are blamed on technical defects, human errors, or design faults – not rogue waves.
Until the 1st day of 1995.
Draupner wave: the first rogue wave to be detected scientifically
Positioned 160 kilometers (99 miles) off the coast of Norway, the Draupner platform plays a crucial role in monitoring the pressure, volume, and quality of gas flows within Norway’s extensive offshore gas pipelines. This intricate complex comprises seven risers and two riser platforms, standing majestically in waters 70 meters (230 feet) deep and interconnected by a bridge.
The platform is outfitted with a comprehensive suite of sensors and scanners, meticulously tracking various oceanic parameters, including the frequency and height of the waves below. This advanced technology is pivotal in ensuring the safety of personnel stationed on the platform.
On the first day of 1995, amidst a sea state with a significant wave height of around 12 meters (39 feet), an extraordinary event was recorded by these sensors. A massive wave, reaching a staggering height of 25.6 meters (84 feet), was detected. Its peak rose 18.5 meters (61 feet) above the calm water level, dwarfing other waves observed before and after it. Remarkably, this wave was six meters (20 feet) taller than the highest wave scientists at the time considered possible only once every 10,000 years.
Moreover, this colossal wave struck the platform with a forceful speed of 72 km/h (45 mph). Before this momentous detection, evidence of rogue waves was limited to anecdotal accounts from seafarers who had faced their wrath. However, this particular reading, taken by a downward-facing laser sensor and corroborated by minor damage on the platform, irrefutably confirmed their existence.
Thus, the legendary monster waves, once relegated to sailors’ tales, were scientifically validated. The Draupner wave, also known as the New Year’s wave, etched its name in history as the first rogue wave ever to be precisely measured by an instrument, turning maritime myth into a documented scientific reality.
Queen Elizabeth 2 encounters with a rogue wave
Merely a few months following the historic detection of the Draupner wave, another extraordinary event unfolded on the high seas. On September 11, 1995, the renowned ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2, voyaging approximately 200 miles south of eastern Newfoundland, confronted a formidable rogue wave. This colossal wave, towering at an estimated 27 meters (89 feet), emerged in the turbulent waters stirred by Hurricane Luis in the North Atlantic Ocean.
This encounter was not just a testament to the sheer power of nature but also a vivid illustration of the unpredictability of the ocean. The ship’s captain, navigating under the cloak of night, described the rogue wave as a sudden, looming presence that “came out of the darkness,” presenting an awe-inspiring and somewhat intimidating sight, akin to the famous White Cliffs of Dover. This description not only captures the wave’s immense scale but also its startling and unexpected nature, characteristics that define rogue waves and challenge mariners around the world.
The encounter of Queen Elizabeth 2 with this rogue wave so soon after the Draupner wave’s detection underscored the reality and frequency of these maritime phenomena. It served as a crucial reminder of the unpredictable dangers lurking in the ocean depths, further igniting scientific curiosity and urgency in understanding these mysterious giants of the sea.
Here’s why rogue waves are extremely dangerous
Rogue waves, formidable and unpredictable, pose a significant threat to maritime safety. These oceanic giants are categorized into three types. The first type includes singular, towering storm waves that rise to staggering heights and then collapse rapidly. The second category, known as “walls of water,” are expansive wavefronts that can travel vast distances, up to 10 kilometers (6 miles), across the ocean. The third type, called the “three sisters,” consists of three enormous waves occurring in rapid succession.
The encounter with a high rogue wave is always catastrophic for a ship, largely due to its sudden and unexpected nature. When a vessel is struck from the side, the wave’s immense energy and the ship’s large surface area can lead to capsizing. A historical example is the RMS Queen Mary in 1943, which nearly overturned when hit by a 28-meter (90-foot) wave, listing alarmingly to 52 degrees. This is a scary thought given the ship was twice the tonnage of the Titanic. Had the Queen Mary been slightly smaller or rolled another few degrees, she would’ve capsized. But miraculously, she managed to righten herself.
Facing these waves head-on is equally dangerous. The steepness of rogue waves makes it difficult for large ships to navigate over them. The inertia of the ship often results in a brutal collision, burying it under massive volumes of water. While capsizing is less likely from the front, the structural integrity of the ship is at risk. As the bow emerges from the wave and the stern remains submerged, immense stress is placed on the hull, potentially leading to catastrophic failure.
The height of rogue waves also poses a threat to a ship’s superstructure, particularly the bridge. Such an impact can damage vital electronics, leading to a loss of maneuverability and rendering even normal storm waves dangerous. This scenario likely contributed to the loss of the MS München and was mirrored in the experience of the cruise ship Bremen in 2001, which was left adrift for 30 minutes after a rogue wave disabled its engines.
The most direct danger of rogue waves lies in the enormous energy they unleash upon impact. A modest 3-meter wave exerts a breaking pressure of 1.5 metric tons per square meter. In contrast, a 12-meter storm wave has a breaking pressure of 6 metric tons per square meter. Modern ships are constructed to withstand up to 15 metric tons per square meter. However, rogue waves, especially those reaching 35 meters in height, can exert pressures ranging from 75 to 100 metric tons per square meter, and potentially even up to 500 metric tons, far exceeding the structural limits of most vessels.
These immense forces can easily breach steel hulls, leaving behind wrecks with gaping holes as stark reminders of the power and peril of rogue waves.
How rogue waves occur
The formation of rogue waves, those towering and unpredictable ocean phenomena, remains a subject of intense scientific investigation. Significant advancements have been made since the first confirmed detection in 1995, leading to a deeper understanding of their origins. Researchers now know that rogue waves aren’t the product of a singular cause. A key principle in their formation is constructive interference, where waves moving at different speeds or directions accumulate, creating a momentary, colossal wave.
Various factors contribute to this phenomenon, including inconsistent wind patterns, ocean currents, and even the topography of the sea floor. In certain areas, these elements interact in a way that creates wave focus points, akin to focusing light with a magnifying glass, significantly increasing the likelihood of rogue wave formation. A notable example is off South Africa’s coast, where the northeast-bound waves from the Southern Atlantic collide with the opposing Agulhas current from the Indian Ocean. This convergence results in steeper, more condensed waves, leading to abnormally high rogue waves that have sunk numerous ships in this vital shipping lane.
Extensive wave data from a gas drilling platform in the South Indian Ocean near the Agulhas current highlights the frequency and extreme heights of rogue waves in this region. Over six years, from 1998 to 2003, sensors recorded over 1500 waves approximately twice the significant wave height, qualifying them as rogue waves. Remarkably, they also detected waves reaching up to 50 meters (160 feet) – the height of a 16-story building.
Despite this knowledge, rogue waves are not confined to these focus points. Many form randomly across the deep sea, far from these hotspots. To explain these occurrences, researchers turn to the realm of quantum physics, where nonlinear quantum mechanical equations reveal how wave components can interact and exchange energy without any external influence. In rare cases, these interactions can lead to instability where a wave draws energy from its neighbors, growing into a rogue wave.
These theories even suggest the existence of ‘rogue holes’ – deep troughs opposite to rogue waves, though they are much less common. However, understanding these phenomena doesn’t necessarily translate to predicting them accurately, presenting a significant challenge.
Recent insights and real-world data have drastically altered our perception of the frequency of rogue waves. It was once believed that waves over 20 meters high would occur once in 24,000 years. Now, evidence suggests they could happen daily. This means that virtually every cargo ship might encounter a rogue wave during its 25-year service life. And despite technological advancements, most ships are still not fully equipped to withstand the immense power of these oceanic giants.
Largest rogue wave ever recorded
At 25.6 meters (84 feet), the Draupner wave remains the largest rogue wave ever properly measured.
In February 2000, a British oceanographic research vessel, the RRS Discovery, sailing in the Rockall Trough west of Scotland encountered the largest waves ever recorded by scientific instruments in the open ocean, with a significant wave height of 18.5 meters (61 feet) and individual waves up to 29.1 meters (95 feet).
But these waves were not rogue waves by definition, since they were not twice the size of the surrounding waves.
The most extreme Rogue Wave on record was just confirmed in the North Pacific
Not as tall as the Draupner wave, but the “most extreme” rogue wave was recorded in November 2020 off the coast of British Columbia. It was 17.6 meters (58 feet) high.
Maybe not that impressive, but keep in mind that when the Draupner wave was recorded, there was a storm with a significant wave height of approximately 12 meters (39 feet). The height difference of the Draupner wave was about 13.6 meters (44.6 feet).
That British Columbia wave came literally out of the blue, so it has now been confirmed as the most extreme rogue wave ever recorded.
The biggest wave ever recorded
An earthquake followed by a landslide on July 9, 1958, in Alaska’s Lituya Bay generated a wave of 30.5 meters (100 feet) high, the tallest megatsunami and the biggest wave ever documented. When the wave ran ashore, it snapped trees 524 meters (1,714 feet) up-slope. Five deaths were recorded, but property damage was minimal because there were few cities or towns nearby.
- What Makes a Wave Go Rogue? on Encyclopedia Britannica
- Rogue Wave on Wikipedia
- List of rogue waves on Wikipedia
- Draupner wave on Wikipedia
- MS München on Wikipedia
- Draupner platform on Wikipedia
- What Are the Biggest Waves in Recorded History? on the Smithsonian Magazine website
- “The Most Extreme ‘Rogue Wave’ on Record Was Just Confirmed in The North Pacific” on the Live Science website
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