What causes monster waves? | DW Documentary

Statistically, a large ship is lost in the world’s oceans almost once every seven days. One reason for this: monster waves that appear to come from nowhere. Unlike tsunamis, they are completely unpredictable. That means there’s no way to issue any kind of warning.

Scientists still know astonishingly little about these freak waves. For centuries, many people dismissed them as the stuff of legend. The first scientific proof of their existence didn’t come until 1995. A laser on the Draupner oil rig in the North Sea measured a wave almost 26 meters high. Wave models in use at the time deemed this to be an impossibility. But the data, captured by chance, changed the course of research forever.

Scientists have focused on three theories in their bid to explain the emergence of freak waves. The first is the current model: currents flowing in opposite directions reduce the length of the waves, pushing them together to create a monster surge. But freak waves are also a phenomenon in regions where currents aren’t particularly strong.

That’s why researchers came up with a second theory: superposition. In this linear process, faster, longer waves catch up with short, slower waves. They overlap and form monster waves. But in some places, freak waves occur with a frequency that can’t be explained by this linear theory, either.

For several years now, scientists have been considering a third possibility: when non-linear wave trains are unstable, they can develop into monster waves through a highly complex energy “theft”. Research is divided over whether it’s the linear or non-linear effects that form freak waves out at sea – a question that’s crucial for shipping!

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