This Ordinary-Looking Chart Provided the First Proof of an Ocean Legend

Illustration for article titled This Ordinary-Looking Chart Provided the First Proof of an Ocean Legend

This doesn’t look impressive, but it is. It’s an up-close look at data collected on New Year’s Day in 1995—and it’s the first official evidence we have to show that “rogue waves” really do exist.


In the mid-1990s, Draupner E, an oil platform in the North Sea, was placed on a novel type of foundation. The foundation required monitoring. All sides and levels of the platform took constant readings of pressure, acceleration, and stress, and used them to measure the height of each wave as it came in. This is why, when the station was completely empty on New Year’s Day in 1995, scientists got the first hard evidence of a “freak wave.”

Freak waves, rogue waves, or monster waves, have long been part of ocean lore. A ship will be on rough seas, or sometimes even calm ones, when sailors turn around to see hundred-foot-tall walls of water coming at them. No one doubted that the ocean could produce large waves. Scientists had even worked out a mechanism for such waves. Waves don’t all travel at the same speed. Sometimes they “catch up” to each other. This might cause a flat patch of ocean, where a peak and a trough combine, or a very high wave when two or more peaks combine with each other. But, outside of legends, no one had any idea how big those waves could get—until the Draupner Wave.

The Draupner Wave, otherwise known as the New Year’s Wave, was approximately 26 meters, or just over 85 feet, tall. It came on its own, surrounded by waves only 12 meters tall. When researchers who noted the wave went out to the platform, they found the kind of damage that indicated that something big had come through. And since Godzilla didn’t show up on the mainland a few days later, they concluded that it was a rogue wave.

[Source: A Possible Freak Wave Measured at the Draupner Jacket January 1, 1995]


Could someone explain to someone like me, with minimal grasp of fluid dynamics, why we don’t observe such waves breaking on the coasts, where there are observers to record them?