Friday, May 23, 2014

Rogue Waves

On March 11, 1861, a lighthouse on Ireland's Eagle Island was engulfed by an impossibly large ocean wave that came out of nowhere and was accompanied by no storm and no other turbulence. It broke 23 panes, washed some of the lamps down the stairs, and damaged the reflectors beyond repair. What makes this all the more shocking is that the lighthouse was on a cliff, and in order to have struck the top of the lighthouse, the wave would have had to have been at least 66 meters high.

May 5, 1916: the British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton was at the tiller of the James Caird in the Southern Ocean. To his horror, he became gradually aware that what he thought was a line of white clouds above a clear dark sky ahead was actually the crest of a single enormous wave moving towards him. There was no avoiding the giant wave, and it nearly capsized his boat when it struck. Shackleton reported it was unlike anything he'd ever seen in his lifetime of seafaring.

The British cruise ship Queen Mary was struck in 1942 by a wave 28 meters high 608 and nearly sank. The Queen Mary listed briefly at a 52-degree angle before slowly righting itself.

Everyone of a certain generation - namely, mine - knows all about the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald, immortalized in Gordon Lightfoot's famous sea chantey. It sank suddenly and unexpectedly during a storm on November 10, 1975, crossing Lake Superior. It went down without a distress signal and all 29 members of the crew perished. The final Coast Guard report blamed water entry to the hatches filling the hold, possibly from damage in hitting a shoal. But a part of the story not so commonly told is that there was another nearby ship in that same storm - the Arthur M. Anderson, and it was struck by two enormous freak waves at around the same time as the Edmund Fitzgerald's disappearance. Why didn't people put the obvious two and two together back then? Because at that time, science did not accept the idea of "rogue waves".

But on July 3, 1992, a 27-mile-long rogue wave pummelled the Volusia County beaches of Florida, so wide that it struck Ormond Beach and New Smyrna Beach at the same time. The wave's crest, which was 18 feet high, was centered at Daytona Beach, causing sailboats to crash ashore onto cars. At a loss to explain the why and the how of the solitary freak wave, scientists suggested an underwater landslide must have caused a tsunami. However, such a massive landslide should have registered a blip on seismic monitors - and it didn't. And the National Weather Service confirmed there couldn't have been anything weather-related about the incident. Though even news reports invoked the term "rogue wave" to describe it, so-called experts were still skeptical.

It wasn't until 1995 that a single inexplicable giant wave, known as the Draupner Wave, occured off the coast of Norway and was captured by monitoring instruments, finally confirming among the scientists what the rest of the world's sailors already knew: rogue waves are real.

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