While searching for some videos on YouTube that might do a better job of explaining the phenomenon of rogue waves than I can, I actually found some really, really good material. First, one of my absolute favorite people on the Intertubes, Hank Green, who is also half of the awesome duo that is the vlog brothers. Here, Hank talks about rogue waves on his SciShow channel.
So, for those of you who may use the “TL, DR” comment on a regular basis, hopefully Hank’s explanation was pretty good. For those of you like me or my father who LOVE the long, involved explanations that you can get with full-blown documentaries, I found that the BBC did a really good episode about them on its show Horizon a few years ago. So enjoy, Dad!
And for those of you paying attention, allow me to point out a few things I especially loved about these two takes on rogue waves.
First, both of them talk about the famous (or infamous, depending on perspective) Draupner Wave of 1995. In the BBC documentary, they call it the New Year’s Wave.
Second, Hank mentions how rogue waves are suspected of snatching lighthouse keepers. I would imagine that he is referring to the incident at the Flannan Isles Lighthouse in December 1900. About a year after the lighthouse was completed, a passing ship noted that the lighthouse was no longer operating, even though the weather was bad. For various reasons no one was able to check on the keepers until Boxing Day, some eleven days after the passing steamer had noticed the lighthouse light not operating. The men sent ashore discovered that all three of the lighthouse keepers were missing. Nothing seemed too amiss at first, although they thought it odd that a chair at the kitchen table was overturned and that a set of oilskins (i.e., waterproof clothing) had been left hanging up unused. While at the east landing everything seemed fine, when the men examined the west landing they were shocked at what they discovered.
A box at 33 metres (108 ft) above sea level had been broken and its contents strewn about; iron railings were bent over, the iron railway by the path was wrenched out of its concrete, and a rock weighing more than a ton had been displaced above that. On top of the cliff at more than 60 metres (200 ft) above sea level, turf had been ripped away as far as 10 metres (33 ft) from the cliff edge. The missing keepers had kept their log until 9 a.m. on 15 December, however, and their entries made it clear that the damage had occurred before the disappearance of the writers.
The evidence suggested that an extremely large wave had struck on the western side of the island, high enough to cause the damage the sailors found. I would imagine that the damage to the turf could be explained by runup, but the wave would still have to have been quite high to top the cliff and do the damage it did.
Third, if the narrator in the Horizons episode seems familiar, he should be. It’s Bernard Hill, who is most famous for playing King Theoden in the Lord of the Rings movies. And somewhat more appropriately, he also played Captain Edward J. Smith in James Cameron’s epic film Titanic.
Fourth, both videos make it quite clear that these waves pose an extraordinary risk to ships at sea, offshore structures, and anything else unfortunate enough to be in their path. Although Hank talks about how these waves are the likely cause of many of the ships that are lost every year, the second video makes it quite clear that modern ship design and construction just hasn’t caught up to the danger these waves present, end even shows some of the damage caused.
At any rate, I hope that everything presented in these two posts of mine shows you why I am so excited about that development at MIT that may give ship crews two or three minutes warning. It literally could mean the difference between living or dying for those crews.