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

TULANE (US)—Physicist Lev Kaplan is hoping 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,” says Kaplan, assistant professor of physics at Tulane University. “People would be able to use that information.”

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 Kaplan.

Until the 1990s, the phenomenon remained a mystery. In 1995, however, a rogue wave was measured hitting an oil-drilling platform in the North Sea off the coast of Norway. The 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.

Tulane University news: