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MIT scientists create algorithm to predict rogue waves

Rogue waves can be disastrous at sea, often dwarfing a ship and striking without warning. Thanks to a new rogue wave prediction tool developed by a team of engineers at MIT, however, sailors may have advance warning that provides the crew with a few minutes to prepare for the impending impact.

The early alert system uses an algorithm to predict the probability of a rogue wave developing in the immediate future. Researchers at MIT noticed that rogue waves originate from a cluster of waves that gather together to make a wave group. Unlike individual waves that move independently of one another, the wave groups move together through the ocean. Select wave groups then exchange their energy to form a powerful rogue wave. “These waves talk to each other,” said Themis Sapsis, who is the American bureau of shipping career development assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “They interact and exchange energy. It’s not just bad luck. It’s the dynamics that create this phenomenon.”

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Sapsis along with post-doc Will Cousins studied ocean wave data collected from ocean buoys, and examined the data using a non-linear analysis of the underlying water wave equations. They looked for patterns that predict the formation of rogue waves and found that a wave group’s length and height were significant predictors for rogue wave formation. They then used statistical analysis to identify the length and height of a wave that is most likely to turn into a rogue wave. This algorithm-based tool can predict the formation of a rogue wave a few minutes before it occurs. This warning could be critical to offshore vessels such as oil platforms and aircraft carriers that are at a high risk of damage from an unexpected rogue wave.

Themis and Sapsis recently published their results in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, and they next need to test their tool in both wave basins and through the use of actual field measurement data. The research was funded by the Office of Naval Research, the Army Research Office, and the American Bureau of Shipping.