Rogue waves loom large among the many legends of the sea. These towering, solitary walls of water can measure tens of meters in height and are difficult to predict, often occurring in calm seas with little warning. But MIT News reports that, with the right algorithm, it is possible to scan the surrounding seas and identify conditions likely to foster a rogue wave. Such “killer waves” form as the product of complex interactions between the frequencies and amplitudes of many different waves in the open ocean. So identifying their precursors is a huge computational tangle. Now, a team of scientists has streamlined the problem by combining ocean wave data with a healthy dose of nonlinear dynamics of the wave system. First, they spotted clusters of waves that tend to roll along together, then they analyzed each cluster’s length and height, and they finally used a combination of statistics and dynamical equations to determine which of those clusters was most likely to go rogue. This strategy, they report online this month in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, could offer a precious 2 to 3 minutes of warning—just enough time, perhaps, to swiftly detach a deepsea drill or close crucial vents.
(Video credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology)