Senior Editor

The Inertia

Just off the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island, there’s a tiny town called Ucluelet. It’s a beautiful place, full of tall trees and ocean-battered shorelines, known in the winters for its storm watching. And just off the coast, researchers recorded a record-setting rogue wave.

Ucluelet is about a half-hour drive south from Tofino. In the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth language, it means “people of the safe harbor.” About 2,000 people call the town home, but when you’re there, it feels like about 100.

A rogue wave is a wave that’s more than twice the height of the average waves occurring around them. They’ve been the subject of sailing lore for thousands of years, but it hasn’t been all that long since we’ve finally been able to document them. According to Newswire, the first one scientists actually recorded was in 1995. Called the Draupner Wave, it rolled through off the coast of Norway. In seas that measured approximately 12 meters (a whisper under 40 feet), the Draupner Wave was 25.6 meters (84 feet). While the Ucluelet rogue wave wasn’t quite as tall, in proportion to the surrounding seas, it was far more intense. So intense, in fact, it’s been called a “once-in-a-millennium” event.

“Proportionally, the Ucluelet wave is likely the most extreme rogue wave ever recorded,” says Dr. Johannes Gemmrich, a research physicist at the University of Victoria. “Only a few rogue waves in high sea states have been observed directly, and nothing of this magnitude. The probability of such an event occurring is once in 1,300 years.”

Dr. Gemmrich worked with Leah Cicon to write a research paper documenting the wave published in Scientific Reports. It was a 17.6 meters in height, nearly triple the size of the average waves around it. A video simulation of the wave, using a MarineLabs buoy tethered seven kilometers (about 4.5 miles) off the coast, can be seen at the 42 second mark in the video above.

Rogue waves are particularly dangerous to vessels. Due to their tendency to appear out of nowhere, they’re a confluence of a multitude of factors and pose a serious danger to ships in rough seas.

“The unpredictability of rogue waves, and the sheer power of these ‘walls of water’ can make them incredibly dangerous to marine operations and the public,” says MarineLabs CEO, Dr. Scott Beatty. “The potential of predicting rogue waves remains an open question, but our data is helping to better understand when, where and how rogue waves form, and the risks that they pose.”


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