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Rogue Waves in the Forecast

November 6, 2009

Mary Ann Travis

For eons, sailors have told tales of frighteningly freakish, humongous waves emerging out of the blue. They have described completely calm ocean waters seconds before a “rogue” wave suddenly rises steeply at a height six or more times greater than usual waves.

“The wave appears, it destroys whatever is in its path, and then it’s gone,” says Lev Kaplan, assistant professor of physics at Tulane.

Watch how a “rogue” wave forms in this simulation by Tulane physicist Lev Kaplan, who talks about his research
into the phenomenon.

Until the 1990s, scientists had not believed sailors’ stories but neither could they explain mysterious disappearances at sea. In 1995, however, a rogue wave was measured hitting an oil-drilling platform in the North Sea off the coast of Norway.

Here was proof that a wave had formed 26 meters in height — as tall as a 10-story building — while most waves in the region were 7 meters high.

Since the first laser measurement that gave definitive scientific evidence that rogue waves exist, satellite data has confirmed that 10 to 20 of these gigantic waves are forming at any moment around the world.

Ocean waves are similar to electron waves and microwaves. Kaplan and his collaborators have discovered that random, chaotic waves of all types can form patterns. The patterns result from “focusing events” in which energy is compressed like a lens focusing light. For ocean waves, sea currents are the source of the focusing energy.

Kaplan’s long-term goal is to calculate the probability of where and when rogue ocean waves will form. A probability warning for a rogue wave would be similar to the “cones of probability” used in tornado and hurricane forecasting.

“What we want to be able to do is to tell people, these are the parts of the ocean that will be particularly dangerous or more dangerous than usual over the next 12, 24 or 48 hours,” Kaplan says. “People would be able to use that information.”

Kaplan will speak at a colloquium sponsored by the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics on Tuesday (Nov. 10) at 3:20 p.m. at the Boggs Center on the topic, "Quantum Chaos: From Electron Waves to Rogue Ocean Waves to Microwaves."


Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000