Scientists Seek Cause of Mysterious 'Rogue' Waves

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"Rogue waves" are monsters of the open ocean — the powerful "walls of water" can destroy even large ships. Satellite measurements have found them to be up to 100 feet tall. So far, scientists have disagreed about what causes the waves, but researchers at UCLA think that they may have found a clue.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Every few years, somebody comes back from the high seas with a really scary story about a freak wave, a killer wall of water. Ocean liners have reported suddenly hitting waves 70 feet high. These so-called rogue waves are the subject of today's Science Out of the Box.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: A guy named Roger Montz is a dentist and a saltwater fisherman in Melbourne Beach, Florida. One day, he was out in his 34-foot powerboat when…

Dr. ROGER MONTZ (Dentist; Saltwater Fisherman): The sea had essentially dropped out, if you know what I'm saying. It was just like we were just tumbling straight down and picking up speed at a wave that was triple the size of what we were just dealing with.

SEABROOK: His boat sank, and Montz spent 30 hours lost at sea before he was rescued by the Coast Guard. No one knows exactly what causes rogue waves, and so it's not easy to study them. But this week, scientists announced that they'd managed to create something similar in the laboratory, monster waves made of light.

NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES: Daniel Solli did not set out to explain rogue waves. He's not really drawn to the ocean. I tend to get seasick, he says. He studies light waves. In his laboratory at UCLA, he and his colleagues sent pulses of light racing through glass fibers.

Mr. DANIEL SOLLI (Engineering Researcher, University of California, Berkley, Los Angeles): And we saw these monstrous waves popping up in optical fiber, waves that were much bigger than any of the neighboring waves.

CHARLES: These monsters were examples of a peculiar kind of solitary wave called a soliton. He and his colleagues looked more closely and found that the giant solitons emerged every once in a great while when normal-size waves got just slightly disturbed.

Mr. SOLLI: One of these preservations(ph) could be a little bit of extra light at a different frequency that's also coming along with this wave, so a few extra photons.

CHARLES: If this were a wave in the ocean, it would be like a few extra splashes of water. Solli was talking about this while riding the bus one day, and he remembered reading about rogue waves at sea.

Mr. SOLLI: And the more we looked into it, the closer the analogy became to the point where then we realized that this - we were really looking at an example of the same phenomenon in just a different system.

CHARLES: So Solli thinks this could be how impossibly big waves form in the ocean - long, smooth waves disturbed in just the right way turned into tall narrow ones. He's curious to know what ocean experts think of this idea. One of them, Steve Elgar from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, calls it a neat experiment. But it reminds them of another neat experiment that he saw back in graduate school. A scientist created solitons in a long tank of water.

Mr. STEVE ELGAR (Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts): And I asked him if he thought this could be applicable in the ocean. And he just started laughing. And I said, why are you laughing? He said it took him and his partner about a year of careful work in laboratory to actually make one of these wave packets.

CHARLES: They used paddles in water to make those waves, not gusts of wind, which is what produces ocean waves.

Mr. ELGAR: He said, there's no way I could take a gigantic fan, which is what the wind is, and kind of randomly blow it on the surface of my tank and make one of these waves.

CHARLES: Elgar thinks there's probably a simpler explanation for waves like the one that dumped Roger Montz, the dentist, into the ocean off Florida. He says watch any patch of the ocean, and you'll see a couple of million waves each year. And just by random chance, once or twice a year, you'd expect a bunch of overlapping waves to come together in just the right way to create one monster.

Mr. ELGAR: So then if you see one, does that mean it's something special, or does it mean that's what you would expect to see once or twice a year? Just from kind of standard statistics, you don't need to invoke solitons and rogue wave behavior.

CHARLES: But he could be convinced there's something special going on, like what Daniel Solli sees in his light waves. It's really worth studying, he says. If you operate ships, it's important. People die from those big waves.

Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.

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