Stories tagged freak waves

Jul
15
2006

Watch that wave:: This historical photo gives a little feel for what a freak wave might be able to do to a ship. An actual freak wave would be taller, ranging in height from 90 to 140 feet high.
Watch that wave:: This historical photo gives a little feel for what a freak wave might be able to do to a ship. An actual freak wave would be taller, ranging in height from 90 to 140 feet high.
The term “Freak of Nature” gets inappropriately thrown around a lot these days. But meteorologists and oceanographers are using the term very appropriately as they learn more about huge ocean waves.

Once thought to be just the old sea tales from the alcohol-induced memories of sailors, more and more credible scientific evidence is being pinpointed about “freak waves,” huge walls of water that sweep across the ocean under just the right oceanic conditions.

I stumbled into learning about freak waves the other night while watching a PBS show called “When Nature Strikes Back: Freak Waves.” The hour-long program documented some pretty interesting things about freak waves. So if you’ve read “A Perfect Storm” or seen the movie of the same name, you probably know something about this already.

To qualify as a freak wave, the wall of water needs to be at least 90 feet (about 30 meters) high. The largest documented freak wave actually measured in at 140 feet high. Back in the days of wind-powered ocean travel, seafarers called freak waves “holes in the ocean” due to the large depression in the water level in advance of the freak wave.

So what’s going on to make a freak wave? It could be the result of a couple factors.

First, it might be the result of high winds pushing along the tops of already high ocean swells. If the wind direction and speed match up to a wave just right, it can push the wave faster so it catches up with another wave ahead of it. Those waves combine their size and if this happens a few times, you suddenly have a very large wave.

Second, two or more wave or storm systems can merge and basically create the same effect. Waves piggybacking on top of each other will add to their size and can lead to a huge wall of water.

Years ago without the aid of modern electronic communication technology, ships that were wiped out by freak waves were simply lost. There was no record of what had happened. Likewise, with better weather tracking technology today, ships can usually avoid the dangerous conditions of freak waves. But researchers are still finding out their impacts.

An offshore oil rig in the North Atlantic was toppled by a freak wave several years ago. And the television show also recreated the tragic tale of an amateur wave photographer who was swept away to sea off the coast of Ireland trying to get photos of freak wave activity. He was positioned on a cliff 90 feet above sea level when a freak wave came and swept him away.

Living here in the middle of the North American continent, I feel pretty insulated from the impact of freak waves. Hummm…..now, if I could just figure out how to create one in the Science Museum’s wave tank