Cruise-Ship Disaster: How Do 'Rogue Waves' Work?

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Manu Fernandez / AP

Workers clean up broken windows on the cruise ship Louis Majesty, anchored at the port in Barcelona

It was like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie. On March 3, a sudden wall of water hit a cruise ship sailing in the Mediterranean Sea off the northeastern coast of Spain, killing two people, injuring 14 and causing severe damage to the vessel.

According to Louis Cruise Lines, the owner of the vessel, the Louis Majesty was hit by three "abnormally high" waves, each more than 33 ft. (10 m) high, striking in clear weather and without warning. "We heard a loud noise, and it was the wave that hit us," Claudine Armand, a passenger from France, told the Associated Press Television News. "When we came out of [our room], we saw the wave had flooded everything."

The Louis Majesty wasn't hit by a sudden storm or any of the other expected dangers of maritime travel. Rather, it may have been the victim of rogue waves. For centuries mariners have told stories about sudden waves that would emerge out of the open ocean without warning, strong enough to topple even large ships. The S.S. Waratah, which vanished on a journey to Cape Town; the M.S. München, lost en route to Savannah, Ga.; even the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, "the good ship and true" of the Gordon Lightfoot song, which disappeared on Lake Superior — all were rumored to have been sunk by rogue waves.

Until recently, however, marine scientists dismissed the idea of rogue waves as little more than a sailors' fantasy, with reason — there was little evidence to back it up. But in 1995, an oil rig in the North Sea recorded an 84-ft.-high (25.6 m) wave that appeared out of nowhere, and in 2000, a British oceanographic vessel recorded a 95-ft.-high (29 m) wave off the coast of Scotland. In 2004, scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA), as part of the MaxWave project, used satellite data to show that freak waves higher than 10 stories were rare but did occur on the oceans.

Scientists still don't know exactly how rogue waves occur, nor do they know how to predict them. Open ocean waves, possibly including rogue waves, form when wind produces distortion over the surface of the sea — the stronger the wind, the higher the wave, which is why hurricanes can create such destructive walls of water. Tsunamis, on the other hand, like the one produced by the 8.8-magnitude earthquake in coastal Chile on Feb. 27, don't create rogue waves; tsunamis barely make a ripple on the open ocean and gather in size only when they reach shallow land near a coastline.

Rogue waves generally occur out in the open ocean. They may be the result of a number of factors coming together — strong winds and fast currents coinciding, for instance — or of a focusing effect, in which several smaller waves join together to form one big wave. There may even be a nonlinear effect at work, in which just a small change in wind speed multiplies to form a big wave. And certain areas of the ocean, like the strong waters off Africa's coast, may be more vulnerable to rogue waves than others.

Creating artificial rogue waves in a laboratory has always been a challenge. But in 2009, scientists from Harvard University and Tulane University examined patterns of microwaves, rather than water waves, to get a better sense of how rogues might arise. They created a metal platform in a lab measuring 26 cm by 36 cm (about 10 in. by 14 in.) and randomly placed 60 small brass cones on the platform to mimic the effect of unexpected ocean eddies in the current. When they beamed microwaves at the platform, the scientists found that "hot spots" — the microwave equivalent of rogue waves — appeared up to 100 times more often than standard wave theory would predict. Those results indicate that rogue waves might be a lot more common than scientists had believed and could explain why so many large ships — as many as two a week — sink even in the absence of bad weather. One day we might even be able to predict when these earthquakes of the sea occur — sparing future cruisegoers the trauma suffered by those on the Louis Majesty.