Rogue waves have been a mystery to scientists for a long time. In fact, despite the fact that mariners have been reporting them for centuries, it hadn’t been conclusively proved that they even existed until two decades ago. Because they’re so elusive, they were thought of as basically impossible to predict–until now, that is.
Twenty years ago, an massive wave smashed into an oil platform on the North Sea. Now called the Draupner Wave (after the name of the platform), it was the first rogue wave ever recorded on a measuring instrument. At the time, the significant wave height–the average of the highest third of all waves measured–hovered around 39 feet. The rogue wave clocked in at an astonishing 84 feet, and although it didn’t help much in predicting them, it proved that rogue waves were indeed a real phenomenon.
The recorded wave height of the Draupner Wave. Image: Paul Taylor/Dept of Engineering Science, Oxford University
The recorded wave height of the Draupner Wave. Image: Paul Taylor/Dept of Engineering Science, Oxford University
Then, more than a decade later, physicists found rogue waves outside of the ocean. When measuring light waves, they found something interesting. Rogue waves existed there, as well. With that discovery, they began looking into other physical systems, and eventually accumulated enough data to entertain the idea of predicting rogue waves in the ocean.
Four physicists, Carsten BreĆ©, Ayhan Demircan, Simon Birkholz, and Gunter Steinmeyer, took data from the Draupner Wave and from other recent experiments. They then randomized the time sequence of all the wave heights and compared that data to the original, unshuffled data. In the originals, they found something that stuck out: in the minutes just prior to the rogue waves, there is a series of repeating patterns. Exactly what that pattern is, however, is difficult to discern.
With the small amount of information they have, they’re only able to pinpoint the pattern, not what makes it happen. But with patterns are predictable, and with the discovery of them in relation to rogue waves, big wave surfing might’ve just found the precursor to the forecasting system to ride bigger waves than ever before.