Researchers Recreate Rogue Wave in Lab, Shedding Light on How They Form in Open Ocean

rogue wave
Still images showing the most successful reconstruction of the Draupner wave. 

Researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh have worked out the unique set of conditions that allow for the creation of ‘freak’ or ‘rogue’ waves that can seemingly appear without warning and pose a danger to ships and mariners at sea.

During the study, the team set out to recreate the conditions that led to famous Draupner freak wave, one of the first confirmed observations of a freak wave ever recorded. The famous wave was observed on the January 1, 1995 in the North Sea by measurements made on the Draupner Oil Platform.

Freak waves are unexpectedly large in comparison to surrounding waves. They are difficult to predict, often appearing suddenly without warning, and are commonly attributed as probable causes for maritime casualties including the sinking of large ships.

Seeking to understand how freak waves form, the team of researchers set out to reproduce the Draupner wave under laboratory conditions at the FloWave Ocean Energy Research facility at the University Of Edinburgh. What they discovered was that that they could recreate the wave using two smaller wave groups that crossed at a specific angle – approximately 120 degrees.

“When waves are not crossing, wave breaking limits the height that a wave can achieve. However, when waves cross at large angles, wave breaking behavior changes and no longer limits the height a wave can achieve in the same manner,” the researchers noted.

“The measurement of the Draupner wave in 1995 was a seminal observation initiating many years of research into the physics of freak waves and shifting their standing from mere folklore to a credible real-world phenomenon,” said Dr. Mark McAllister at the University of Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science. “By recreating the Draupner wave in the lab we have moved one step closer to understanding the potential mechanisms of this phenomenon.”

Interestingly, the wave they created also resembled the ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, also known as ‘The Great Wave’, a woodblock print published in the early 1800s by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusa, which is believed to depict a freak, or ‘rogue’, wave.

The researchers hope that this study will lay the groundwork for being able to predict these potentially catastrophic and hugely damaging waves that occur suddenly in the ocean without warning.

A demonstration of the wave can be seen in the video below: