Freak waves cause death and destruction at sea. As climate change looks set to make them more extreme, researchers are scrambling to find ways to predict when and where these killers will strike
24 March 2021
“For God’s sake, hold on! It’s got us!” When explorer Ernest Shackleton uttered these words in Antarctica in 1916, his ship Endurance had already been crushed by ice and sunk. Desperately rowing to the island of South Georgia with a small crew, Shackleton spotted another disaster heading their way: an enormous wave.
“During twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days,” he later wrote, “but somehow the boat lived through it.”
Although freak waves like Shackleton’s “mighty upheaval” are peppered through mariners’ tales, on dry land, accounts were met with raised eyebrows. However, when a gargantuan wall of water slammed into the Draupner oil platform in the North Sea on 1 January 1995, science finally caught up with folklore. Dubbed the New Year’s wave, it was the first official recording of a rogue wave. The 25-metre giant rose from a surrounding sea churned by waves averaging 12 metres.
Since then, our understanding of the complex forces that drive water to abruptly rise to create rogue waves far taller than those around them has become clearer, propelled by more reliable measurements, advances in wave modelling and ramped-up computational power.
But to protect ships and lives at sea, we need to predict when these rogues will occur. Given the complex patterns of waves across the vast reaches of the seas, making accurate forecasts is no simple task. Still, the need for such …