Rogue Waves: Mystery Monsters of the Sea

In April, 1966, on a North Atlantic crossing to New York, the 46,000-ton Italian ocean liner Michelangelo was struck by an 80-ft. (25m) wave that collapsed the ship’s forward superstructure, smashed windows, killed two passengers and a crewman, and injured 50.

              During World War II, in December, 1942, RMS Queen Mary was transporting 16,000 American troops to Europe. As Queen Mary entered the North Atlantic, a 92-ft (28m) wave came out of nowhere and broadsided the huge 1,000-ft ocean liner, knocking the ship into a 52- degree list. Had it listed another 3 degrees, it would have capsized, taking the 16,000 troops and the crew to the bottom of the Atlantic. Fortunately, it gradually righted and sailed back to port for repairs. There was no loss of life.     

On March 2, 2001, the Caledonian Star was crossing the South Atlantic with several hundred tourists aboard. At 5 a.m., a 98-ft (30m) wave suddenly smashed into the ship, flooding the bridge and destroying all navigation and communications equipment.  Luckily, the ship’s engines continued to run and it was able to make it back to port with everyone still safely aboard.

            The German cargo ship MS Munchen (Munich), sailing between Bremerhaven and Charleston, South Carolina, was not so lucky. On the night of December 13, 1978, the relatively new ship built to withstand extreme conditions, went down with all hands. Debris found by search vessels revealed that the Munchen was struck by a wave at least 66 ft (20m) high, disabling the ship. Evidence indicated the freighter drifted for 3 days before capsizing and sinking. All communications equipment had been knocked out. After the Munchen was lost, the bridges on new cargo ships were located on the stern of the ship instead of forward.

            These are just three examples of the hundreds of reports of gigantic freak waves sinking or damaging ships. What are these strange monster waves that appear without warning and overwhelm large oceangoing vessels?

            They are called rogue waves and seem to occur in deep water, often where strong winds and fast currents converge. Until very recently, the idea of rogue waves was thought to be maritime folklore, tall tales told by sailors home from the sea. Scientists began to believe in their existence in 1995 when the Daupner drilling platform in the North Sea for the first time scientifically recorded with a laser sensor an 84-ft (25.6m) wave that struck the rig on a clear New Year’s Day. The platform sustained minor damage, but survived. Unlike a tsunami, which is caused by an undersea earthquake and sudden deformation of the ocean floor, a rogue wave is a product of wind and ocean current conditions on the ocean’s surface.

 In 2000, European Space Agency scientists launched Project MaxWave, using satellite data to search for and confirm the existence of rogue waves. They found that 10-story waves are real and occur rarely but regularly in deep oceans throughout the world.  Many strike during heavy storms, but these mountain-like waves can also appear suddenly on a clear day in calm conditions. Rogue waves are consistently described by eyewitnesses as a vertical wall of water up to 100 ft (30m) high, preceded by a trough so deep it looks like a hole in the sea.

The weight and pressure per square inch (kilopascal) of a wave of this magnitude breaking over a ship is so extreme that few vessels can survive a direct hit without sinking or sustaining great damage.

Scientists have been designing computer models and laboratory experiments to research the origin and dynamics of rogue waves, but so far do not agree on the exact sets of conditions that create them. Another scientific group is making a chart of when and where rogue waves occur so that ships can be warned to avoid areas where these monster waves are most likely to appear. 

Gordon About Gordon

In writing his novel TSUNAMI, Gordon Gumpertz did extensive research on plate tectonics and seafloor geology to give this work of fiction an authentic atmosphere.

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