There is a phenomenon out at sea as eerie and fleeting as the mist off its back. When it happens ships will sink, Sailors will whisper among themselves like nervous gulls, and Laird Hamilton will wake up sweating in his bed. “It” is no ordinary wave. “It” was supposed to be 30 meters tall and only occur once every 10,000 years. “It” has been an old sea fantasy since the Aegean’s. And “It” is something that scientists have discovered happens out in the open ocean much more than they ever believed.

Long reported by cruise ships and freighters with claims they “look like as big and white cliffs of Dover,” “rogue waves” or “freak waves” have been blamed for the unexplained demise of many vessels. In 1995, the Queen Elizabeth II encountered a wave that reached its bowline — {{{100}}} feet high. But with such firsthand accounts being the only evidence, scientific research was tough to come by. Until now. Thanks to a project known was Max Wave, scientists have determined they not only exist, but occur much more frequently than ever believed. The question now is why and how? And perhaps more importantly, can we predict them?

Wolfgang Rosenthal, German researcher, looks like the sea-faring type. He is part of a project known as MaxWave, which was established by a consortium of 11 organizations from six EU countries in order to better understand these sporadic giants coined “Freak Waves.” With the shipping industry being the catalyst for the group’s formation, Rosenthal believes MaxWave’s research will be able to prevent frequent wave related accidents in the future. As to date, Rosenthal explained that MaxWave is carrying on two lines of work:

“One is to improve ship design by learning how ships are sunk, and the other is to examine more satellite data with a view to analyzing if forecasting these waves is possible.”

As part of its research, MaxWave analyzed the data from two of the European Space Agency’s Earth-scanning satellites, ERS-1 and ERS-2, in 2001. The results were startling.

“The waves” said Rosenthal, “exist in higher numbers than anyone expected.”In a three-week period, Rosenthal along with his team found ten freak waves — some reaching almost 30 meters (100 ft) in height.

Insofar as the future goes, the group has a WaveAtlas project planned. It will map out two years’ worth of information about frequent wave events, though it will fail to provide an answer as to when and how the waves are formed. However, for many researchers this latter aspect seems to be the more pressing question.

Meet Paul C. Liu: An elder gentleman with a humble smile, he sits surrounded by papers in his office in Ann Arbor, MI. Liu explains about the scarcity of concrete data science currently possess about freak waves:

” WaveAtlas is a good start. But that just gives you a special satellite picture of where the waves happened. How many rogue waves you might find at that specific given time. But still, you don’t know when they happen. The waves can happen any time any place.”

And for scientists, this is what has been at the heart of the problem when discovering how the waves are made. Normal waves — even the ones a Log Cabin’s — all form as a result of the wind; the duration it blows, the amount of time it blows for, and it’s strength, all determine the swell. Abnormal waves, such as Tsunamiss, which are known for creating destruction, are the product of underwater earth movements such as volcanoes or landslides. {{{Rogue}}} waves on the other hand, can sporadically occur at deep locations in the ocean on both calm and rough days seemingly independent of wind or underwater earth movements.

Currently, the only explanation for these waves that ocean-experts have been able to provide, are all theoretical. So far the most convincing theory is one which hypothesizes how ocean currents act the way a magnifying glass does when bending light–bending swell energy and focusing it at certain locations.

All these theories however do little to satisfy Liu, who is seeking solid data in a world of water.

” You can make all kinds of conjectures,” says Liu, “but the fact is, nobody’s ever recorded a moving Rogue wave. We don’t know what is going on out there.”

Liu has made several efforts to get funding in order to record rogue waves and their activities, but so far has been unsuccessful.

” It’s a fascinating subject, but there’s no funding out there. There’s no immediate interest.”

Perhaps one day Liu might think about giving Mr. Hamilton a call. Meanwhile these silent giants are instigating scientists and surfers to discover them. Daniel Brown