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What is a Freak Wave?

A freak wave, also known as a rogue wave, is a massive, unexpected wall of water that can dwarf ocean liners and swallow ships whole. These maritime monsters, once dismissed as nautical myths, have been confirmed by modern science as rare but real oceanic phenomena. What causes these colossal waves to rise from the depths? Join us to uncover the mystery.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Freak waves, also known as rogue waves, are legendary waves more than about twice the size of the largest typical waves. Until one was recorded by sensors on Draupner oil platform in the North Sea in 1995, it was thought that such waves may simply be a sailors' tall tale. Now it is known that freak waves are very much real, albeit extremely rare. They are so large, as tall as 25 m (27 yards) or more in height, that they pose a threat to ocean liners and other large ships. Because of their danger and the novelty associated with them, freak waves area a notable area of study among both oceanographers and physicists. To visualize the effect of a freak wave on an unfortunate ship, imagine a column of water the size of a 12-story building crashing down at the speed of a fast car.

Freak waves have long been part of the stories of sailors in older times. They told of waves so huge that they looked almost like vertical walls of water, and were proceeded by troughs so deep that they were veritable "holes in the sea." Such stories may have played a part in the foundation of myths of sea gods such as Poseidon. In modern times, statisticians approaching the problem used the Rayleigh probability distribution to measure the likely magnitude of waves, and found that waves with a height of over 15 m (16 yards) should be extremely rare. However, satellite imagery and ocean sensors since 1995 have invalidated this, showing that extraordinarily large waves do in fact form more frequently than theory would predict.

Oceanographers may study freak waves.
Oceanographers may study freak waves.

Scientists are still researching the likely causes of freak waves. One of the biggest risk factors is said to be when the area has a strong current running counter to the direction of the waves, such as certain areas around South Africa. Another causative factor is probably diffractive focusing - certain shapes in the seabed or along the coast can focus waves on a single point. There, constructive interference can occur - several smaller waves may all take place at the same place at the same time, building together into a massive freak wave. There are probably numerous other contributing factors, such as wind velocity, nonlinear effects, and focusing by current. Much more research and observation needs to be conducted before we truly understand the freak wave phenomenon.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

irontoenail

@pastanaga - I imagine they would like to be able to predict them, but that's not really why freak waves are studied. Any phenomenon outside normal behavior is going to help to shed light on the norm once it is understood. And the more we understand how the ocean currents and waves and so forth work, the better we can design ships and platforms to go on them.

pastanaga

@browncoat - Even if the sailors weren't aware that there had been an earthquake, when they told the story the people on land could have told them and matched up the dates.

And considering the way that waves are created it's not surprising that occasionally there is one or two huge waves that defy the averages. I'm not sure if we're ever going to be able to predict them properly though. It seems like there are way too many factors to take into account.

From the perspective of ship owners and sailors, I think it would be better to figure out ways of ensuring their ship can survive the occasional freak wave, rather than trying to figure out how to predict them.

browncoat

It's interesting how many ancient tales told by sailors turn out to have a grain of truth. Even the kracken has some basis in reality when you look at the massive size and shape of the giant squid that occasionally wash up on shore.

Although a freak wave sounds like it would be similar to a tsunami, and I don't see why someone on a ship would know either way if there was an earthquake, so it's possible that accounts of monster waves could have been from those.

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    • Oceanographers may study freak waves.
      By: iko
      Oceanographers may study freak waves.
    • Freak waves are more than twice the size of normal waves.
      By: trubavink
      Freak waves are more than twice the size of normal waves.