Environment

"Once-in-a-millennium" rogue wave crashes into the record books

"Once-in-a-millennium" rogue w...
Scientists have claimed a new record for what's known as a "rogue" wave
Scientists have claimed a new record for what's known as a "rogue" wave
View 2 Images
Scientists have claimed a new record for what's known as a "rogue" wave
1/2
Scientists have claimed a new record for what's known as a "rogue" wave
MarineLabs' network of sensor buoys are expected to total close to 70 by the end of 2022
2/2
MarineLabs' network of sensor buoys are expected to total close to 70 by the end of 2022

Also known as freak or killer waves, rogue waves are those that pop up suddenly as a great deal larger than others in a given set, posing serious danger to any ships or infrastructure unfortunate enough to be in the area. Researchers are reporting a record-setting new example of this phenomenon, with a four-story-tall rogue wave that occurred off the coast of Canada confirmed as the most extreme ever measured.

The record-setting rogue wave was measured off the coast of Ucluelet on Vancouver Island in November 2020 at a height of 17.6 meters (57.7 ft). Waves regularly reach greater heights than this, and some of are even ridden by thrill-seeking surfers such as those that descend on Nazaré in Portugal when the massive swells roll in each year.

But rogue waves earn their frightening reputation for their unpredictable nature, and are technically defined as being more than double the height of the waves around them. Unlike tsunamis that are largely caused by seismic activity, rogue waves take shape due to strong currents, winds and or storms that can cause separate waves to merge into a giant wall of water.

The first of these ever recorded took place off the coast of Norway in 1995 and measured 25.6 m (84 ft), among surrounding waves of around 12 m (39 ft). The Ucluelet wave was far shorter than this, but because the waves around it measured only 6 m (19.7 ft) or so, it earns the title as the most extreme rogue wave ever recorded.

"Proportionally, the Ucluelet wave is likely the most extreme rogue wave ever recorded," said Johannes Gemmrich, from the University of Victoria, and an author on a study detailing the event. "Only a few rogue waves in high sea states have been observed directly, and nothing of this magnitude. The probability of such an event occurring is once in 1,300 years."

Rogue waves are traditionally difficult to detect and measure, but are gaining more attention due to the dangers that they pose. In 2016 we looked at technology under development at MIT that uses a special algorithm to spot clusters of waves that are likely to merge into a giant rogue wave. The measurement of this Ucluelet wave was collected by Canadian outfit MarineLabs, whose network of sensor buoys placed along the coast of North America aim to improve forecasting of such events.

MarineLabs' network of sensor buoys are expected to total close to 70 by the end of 2022
MarineLabs' network of sensor buoys are expected to total close to 70 by the end of 2022

"The unpredictability of rogue waves, and the sheer power of these 'walls of water' can make them incredibly dangerous to marine operations and the public," says MarineLabs CEO, Dr. Scott Beatty. "The potential of predicting rogue waves remains an open question, but our data is helping to better understand when, where and how rogue waves form, and the risks that they pose."

The company's CoastAware network currently comprises 26 sensor buoys, but is expected to reach close to 70 by the end of 2022.

"We are aiming to improve safety and decision-making for marine operations and coastal communities through widespread measurement of the world's coastlines," says Beatty. "Capturing this once-in-a-millennium wave, right in our backyard, is a thrilling indicator of the power of coastal intelligence to transform marine safety."

You can check out a recreation of the freak Ucluelet wave in the video below, while the research was published in the journal Scientific Reports

Simulation of the MarineLabs buoy and mooring in the rogue wave

Source: MarineLabs via Cision

7 comments
7 comments
Nobody
That this is a recent scientific discovery is almost humorous and that these waves only form every 1300 years is even more so. Anyone who has spent much time on large bodies of water knows that there are many types of waves and anyone with a little science background is aware of constructive and destructive wave interference. When many waves moving in different directions converge, it is not unusual to see a very large wave seemingly rise up from nowhere and just as quickly disappear. There are always waves moving in different directions on any body of water with different shapes and amplitudes. Six foot rolling waves on the ocean differ greatly from six foot white caps. When I was a teenager we would create huge waves on a lake by running our small ski boat in a very large circle and continuing to tighten the radius of the circle. This would create a series of small waves all moving to the center of the circle. After several passes, we would turn into the center as all the small waves converged briefly into a huge 4 to 5 foot wave which crashed over the boat and tossed the following water skier high into the air. Back then we didn't know much about physics but we could create a whopper of a wave whenever we wanted to. I would imagine this wave interaction could occur quite often on the ocean and 50-75 foot waves could be quite common but be very localized and only last a very short time.
Piratebarnabus
We got hit by one of these in the Caribbean.
It put out Mast and spreaders in the water whilst on anchor.
It was caused by a depression to the north of the islands. We were in Bequia and the wave ripped off the new walkway that the locals had installed on the cliff.
People who saw this were amazed that our anchor held. We sustained no damage but took on a little water as the hatches were on vent.
There were 3 waves in total. One after the other.
Locals said it was the worst they'd seen in 40 years.
guzmanchinky
Ok well THAT'S terrifying...
Inga
This happened in 2019, so it is difficult to remember the context. Was this due to seismic activity? The article only mentions wind.
ljaques
Haven't nearly all fishermen and big-boat drivers met rogue waves every single year they've been on the water? (yawn)
I first learned about rogue wave sets when I learned to surf at age 12. They happen about every 15 minutes.
TpPa
confused, new record of 57' when there was one recorded at 84', almost 30' bigger
AladdinConnolly
@tppa I believe the artcile states that it is the ratio of height to surrounding waves that makes it a record.