Rogue waves in the ocean, which can be taller than the Hollywood sign or a six-storey building, are seemingly impossible to predict and can be devastating to any ships, oil rigs, and humans in their path. Until the 1995 Draupner wave, many people thought these freakish waves—which are greater than twice the size of surrounding ones—were the product of sailors’ overheated imaginations. But now we know they’re extremely real, and scientists are trying to understand them, even to predict them before they form, to protect ships and sailors.
A team of scientists is using a unique tank to study these waves, and see how much wind patterns have to do with their formation, as described in Physical Review Letters.
Video: University of East Anglia
This isn’t the first time researchers have studied and even produced mini rogue waves in a lab—but what’s totally new is that instead of mechanically generating these waves, the scientists used circular wind flumes to do it (instead of longitudinal wind flumes, which quickly reach the end of the flume and are limited in their results). Similar conditions exist around Antarctica, where the seas are notoriously rough.
“We modelled the action of the wind in the ocean,” Davide Proment, one of the researchers and a mathematician at England’s University of East Anglia, told me.
With a tank of still water, the researchers turned on fans to mimic ocean winds, blowing air over the surface of the tank for two hours and carefully monitoring the surface elevation of the water the entire time.
Along with other researchers from Australia and Belgium, Proment saw that the circular winds created an erratic wave field, resulting in really high waves.
This flume let the scientists “create waves propagating circularly and continually. We were able to infer the probability of finding very very large waves,” he said, adding that they found rogue waves are more common than previously thought.
“Notoriously, the sea states in the Antarctica region are very dangerous. It is known that there are really high waves there,” Proment said. “By doing this experiment … we can mimic what is happening there.”
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