Surf's up! 19-meter wave wipes out world record

The World Meteorological Organization has detected a record-breaking wave of 19 m (62.3 ft)(Credit: Rost9/Depositphotos)

A new world record for the highest wave has been recorded by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). In the freezing, turbulent waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Iceland and the UK, an automated buoy detected a significant wave height of 19 m (62.3 ft).

The record-breaking wave rolled through the area at 6 am UTC on February 4, 2013, following a strong cold front that whipped up winds of 43.8 knots (50.4 mph, 81 km/h). It crashed over the previous record of 18.275 m (59.96 ft), which was detected in the same stretch of ocean in 2007.

"This is the first time we have ever measured a wave of 19 meters," says Wenjian Zhang, WMO Assistant Secretary-General. "It is a remarkable record. It highlights the importance of meteorological and ocean observations and forecasts to ensure the safety of the global maritime industry and to protect the lives of crew and passengers on busy shipping lanes."

The buoy that detected the wave is part of a network of moored and drifting buoys, called Marine Automatic Weather Stations, designed to observe and monitor weather patterns and help forecast potentially hazardous conditions. The 19-meter wave went into the record books as "the highest significant wave height as measured by a buoy".

That wording is deliberately careful, since the buoys are just one part of a wider observation network comprised of ships and satellites. And "significant wave height" is a metric designed to ignore the influence of one-off "rogue waves," which are hard to accurately measure. Wave height is defined as the distance between the highest point of one wave and the lowest point of the one behind it. Significant wave height is the average taken from the highest one-third of waves over a set amount of time, which is said to be closer to what an observer would see over 15 to 20 waves within 10 minutes or so.

"The new world record will be added to the official WMO archive of weather and climate extremes which is being constantly updated and expanded thanks to continued improvements in instrumentation, technology and analysis," says Randall Cerveny, WMO's Joint Rapporteur on World Records of Climate and Weather Extremes.

Hosted by Arizona State University, the WMO archive contains records relating to temperature, rainfall, hail, droughts and wind speeds, among others.

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