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Researchers replicate rogue waves under realistic conditions for first time

In the 1700s, a wave shattered the glass of the Eagle Island lighthouse off the coast of Ireland. This was no ordinary wave. Water reportedly climbed 130 feet up the cliff to crash against the 85-foot tower.

Rumors of “rogue waves” have circulated among sailors but it wasn’t until New Year’s Day 1995 that the phenomenon was scientifically confirmed, when instruments on an oil rig recorded the 84-foot Draupner wave in the North Sea off the coast of Norway.

“So far these models have not been known to occur also for irregular wave conditions.”

Research increased following the 1995 event as scientists looked to explain the unusual, unpredictable, and extremely dangerous phenomenon that could capsize ocean liners. In Professor Amin Chabchoub’s hydrodynamics lab at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland, researchers have been able to replicate rogue waves in perfect conditions. Now they’ve shown they can can create rogue waves in much more realistic conditions such as those found at sea. They’ve published a paper this week in Physical Review Letters.

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Up until now, rogue waves have been studied and explained physically by modulation instability, in which slight deviations from regular waveforms can generate these massive, abnormal waves.

“The restriction of these waves are related to the fact that the waves, from which the giant wave appears, are regular,” Chabchoub tells Digital Trends. “Such rogue waves have been observed in these regular conditions in water waves … however, so far these models have not been known to occur also for irregular wave conditions.”

The ocean is often choppy and any sailor will say wave regularity is only ever temporary. Understanding rogue waves in regular, predictable conditions is therefore only one aspect of the phenomenon.

“[In this study we] have been able to observe … rogue wave dynamics for irregular wave train, as they occur in the ocean,” Chabchoub says.

The study will help researchers predict some rogue waves, but not all of them, according to Chabchoub. Preparation is perhaps as important as prediction though, and the lab-generated rogue waves may be used to test newly designed vessels before they are constructed at full scale.