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Rogue waves (also known as freak waves, monster waves, killer waves, extreme waves, and abnormal waves) are relatively large and spontaneous ocean surface waves that occur far out at sea, and are a threat even to large ships and ocean liners.
In oceanography, they are more precisely defined as waves whose height is more than twice the significant wave height (SWH), which is itself defined as the mean of the largest third of waves in a wave record. Therefore rogue waves are not necessarily the biggest waves found at sea; they are, rather, surprisingly large waves for a given sea state. Rogue waves seem not to have a single distinct cause, but occur where physical factors such as high winds and strong currents cause waves to merge to create a single exceptionally large wave.
Rogue waves, sometimes known as freak waves or "hundred-year waves" (due to the supposed likelihood of their occurrence.) are an ocean phenomenon, in which winds, currents, non-linear phenomena such as solitons, and other circumstances cause a wave to briefly form that is far larger than the "average" large occurring wave (the significant wave height or 'SWH') of that time and place.
Once considered mythical and lacking hard evidence for their existence, rogue waves are now proven to exist and known to be a natural ocean phenomenon. Eyewitness accounts from mariners and damages inflicted on ships have long suggested they occurred; however, their scientific measurement was only positively confirmed following measurements of the "Draupner wave", a rogue wave at the Draupner platform, in the North Sea on January 1, 1995. During that event, minor damage was also inflicted on the platform, far above sea level, confirming that the reading was valid. Their existence has also since been confirmed by satellite imagery of the ocean surface.
A rogue wave is distinct from a tsunami. Tsunamis are caused by massive displacement of water, and often result from sudden movement of the ocean floor, which then propagate at high speed over a wide area. They are more or less unnoticeable in deep water, and only becoming dangerous as they approach the shoreline and the ocean floor becomes shallower; therefore tsunamis do not present a threat to shipping at sea (the only ships lost in the 2004 Asian tsunami were in port). They are also distinct from mega-tsunamis, which are single massive waves caused by landslides within enclosed or limited bodies of water. A rogue wave, on the other hand, is an ocean phenomenon that is not caused by land movement, only lasts briefly, occurs in a limited location, and most often happens far out at sea. Rogue waves are considered rare but potentially very dangerous, since they can involve the spontaneous formation of massive waves far beyond the usual expectations of ship designers, and can overwhelm the usual capabilities of ocean-going vessels which are not designed for such encounters.
In oceanography, rogue waves are precisely defined as waves whose height is more than twice the significant wave height (SWH), which is itself defined as the mean of the largest third of waves in a wave record. Therefore rogue waves are not necessarily the biggest waves found at sea; they are, rather, surprisingly very large waves for a given sea state. In February 2000, a British oceanographic research vessel, the RRS Discovery, sailing in the Rockall Trough west of Scotland encountered the largest waves ever recorded by scientific instruments in the open ocean, with a SWH of 18.5 metres (61 ft) and individual waves up to 29.1 metres (95 ft). "In 2004 scientists using three weeks of radar images from European Space Agency satellites found ten rogue waves, each 25 metres (82 ft) or higher."
Rogue waves have been cited in the media as a likely cause of the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of many ocean-going vessels. One of the very few cases in which evidence exists that may indicate a rogue wave incident is the 1978 loss of the freighter MS München.
Rogue waves should not be confused with the so-called "hundred-year wave", which is a statistical prediction of the highest wave likely to occur in a hundred-year period in a particular body of water. These predictions are typically based on theoretical and statistical wave models which do not take rogue waves into account.
It is common for mid-ocean storm waves to reach 7 metres (23 ft) in height, and in extreme conditions such waves can reach heights of 15 metres (49 ft). However, for centuries maritime folklore told of the existence of much larger waves — up to 30 metres (98 ft) in height (approximately the height of a 10-story building) — that could appear without warning in mid-ocean, against the prevailing current and wave direction, and often in perfectly clear weather. Such waves were said to consist of an almost vertical wall of water preceded by a trough so deep that it was referred to as a "hole in the sea"; a ship encountering a wave of such magnitude would be unlikely to survive the tremendous pressures exerted by the weight of the breaking water, and would almost certainly be sunk in a matter of seconds or minutes.
Research has confirmed that waves of up to 35 metres (115 ft) in height are much more common than mathematical probability theory would predict using a Rayleigh distribution of wave heights.  In fact, they seem to occur in all of the world's oceans many times every year. This has caused a re-examination of the reasons for their existence, as well as reconsideration of the implications for ocean-going ship design.
Rogue waves may also occur in lakes. A phenomenon known as the "Three Sisters" is said to occur in Lake Superior when a series of three large waves forms. The second wave hits the ship's deck before the first wave clears. The third incoming wave adds to the two accumulated backwashes and suddenly overloads the ship deck with tons of water. The phenomenon was implicated in the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior in November 1975.
In the course of Project MaxWave, researchers from the GKSS Research Centre, using data collected by ESA satellites, identified a large number of radar signatures that have been portrayed as evidence for rogue waves. Further research is under way to develop better methods of translating the radar echoes into sea surface elevation, but at present this technique is not proven.
Because the phenomenon of rogue waves is still a matter of active research, it is premature to state clearly what the most common causes are or whether they vary from place to place. The areas of highest predictable risk appear to be where a strong current runs counter to the primary direction of travel of the waves; the area near Cape Agulhas off the southern tip of Africa is one such area; the warm Agulhas current runs to the southwest, while the dominant winds are westerlies. However, since this thesis does not explain the existence of all waves that have been detected, several different mechanisms are likely, with localised variation. Suggested mechanisms for freak waves include the following:
|Diffractive focusing||According to this hypothesis, coast shape or seabed shape directs several small waves to meet in phase. Their crest heights combine to create a freak wave.|
|Focusing by currents||Waves from one current are driven into an opposing current. This results in shortening of wavelength, causing shoaling (i.e., increase in wave height), and oncoming wave trains to compress together into a rogue wave. This happens off the South African coast, where the Agulhas current is countered by westerlies.|
|Nonlinear effects (modulational instability)||It seems possible to have a rogue wave occur by natural, nonlinear processes from a random background of smaller waves. In such a case, it is hypothesised, an unusual, unstable wave type may form which 'sucks' energy from other waves, growing to a near-vertical monster itself, before becoming too unstable and collapsing shortly after. One simple model for this is a wave equation known as the nonlinear Schrödinger equation (NLS), in which a normal and perfectly accountable (by the standard linear model) wave begins to 'soak' energy from the waves immediately fore and aft, reducing them to minor ripples compared to other waves. The NLS can be used in deep water conditions. In shallow water, waves are described by the Korteweg–de Vries equation or the Boussinesq equation. These equations also have non-linear contributions and show solitary-wave solutions. A small-scale rogue wave consistent with the nonlinear Schrödinger equation was produced in a laboratory water tank in 2011. In particular, the study of solitons, and especially Peregrine solitons, have supported the idea that non-linear effects could arise in bodies of water.|
|Normal part of the wave spectrum||Rogue waves are not freaks at all but are part of normal wave generation process, albeit a rare extremity.|
|Wind waves||While it is unlikely that wind alone can generate a rogue wave, its effect combined with other mechanisms may provide a fuller explanation of freak wave phenomena. As wind blows over the ocean, energy is transferred to the sea surface. When strong winds from a storm happen to blow in the opposing direction of the ocean current the forces might be strong enough to randomly generate rogue waves. Theories of instability mechanisms for the generation and growth of wind waves—although not on the causes of rogue waves—are provided by Phillips and Miles.|
|Thermal expansion||When a stable wave group in a warm water column moves into a cold water column the size of the waves must change because energy must be conserved in the system. So each wave in the wave group become smaller because cold water holds more wave energy based on density. The waves are now spaced further apart and because of gravity they will propagate into more waves to fill up the space and become a stable wave group. If a stable wave group exists in cold water and moves into a warm water column the waves will get larger and the wavelength will be shorter. The waves will seek equilibrium by attempting to displace the waves amplitude because of gravity. However by starting with a stable wave group the wave energy can displace towards the center of the group. If both the front and back of the wave group are displacing energy towards the center it can become a rogue wave. This would happen only if the wave group is very large.|
The spatio-temporal focusing seen in the NLS equation can also occur when the nonlinearity is removed. In this case, focusing is primarily due to different waves coming into phase, rather than any energy transfer processes. Further analysis of rogue waves using a fully nonlinear model by R.H. Gibbs (2005) brings this mode into question, as it is shown that a typical wavegroup focuses in such a way as to produce a significant wall of water, at the cost of a reduced height.
A rogue wave, and the deep trough commonly seen before and after it, may last only for some minutes before either breaking, or reducing in size again. Apart from one single rogue wave, the rogue wave may be part of a wave packet consisting of a few rogue waves. Such rogue wave groups have been observed in nature.
There are three categories of freak waves:
A research group at the Umeå University, Sweden in August 2006 showed that normal stochastic wind driven waves can suddenly give rise to monster waves. The nonlinear evolution of the instabilities was investigated by means of direct simulations of the time-dependent system of nonlinear equations.
The possibility of the artificial stimulation of rogue wave phenomena has attracted research funding from DARPA, an agency of the United States Department of Defense. Bahram Jalali and other researchers at UCLA studied microstructured optical fibers near the threshold of soliton supercontinuum generation and observed rogue wave phenomena. After modelling the effect, the researchers announced that they had successfully characterized the proper initial conditions for generating rogue waves in any medium. Additional works carried out in optics have pointed out the role played by a nonlinear structure called Peregrine soliton that may explain those waves that appear and disappear without leaving a trace.
It should be noted that many of these encounters are only reported in the media, and are not examples of open ocean rogue waves. Often, in popular culture, an endangering huge wave is loosely denoted as a rogue wave, while it has not been (and most often cannot be) established that the reported event is a rogue wave in the scientific sense — i.e. of a very different nature in characteristics as the surrounding waves in that sea state and with very low probability of occurrence (according to a Gaussian process description as valid for linear wave theory).
This section lists a limited selection of notable incidents.
Freak waves have been cited in the media as a likely cause of the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of many ocean-going vessels. However, although this is a credible explanation for unexplained losses, there is to date little clear evidence supporting this hypothesis nor any cases where the cause has been confirmed, and the claim is contradicted by information held by Lloyd's Register. A press release by the European Space Agency in 2004 made the claim that "Severe weather has sunk more than 200 supertankers and container ships exceeding 200 metres in length during the last two decades. Rogue waves are believed to be the major cause in many such cases". However, at the time the claim was made, there had only been 142 ships of that size lost at sea in the time frame, all with clear, known causes. The main culprits were the Iranian and Iraqi air forces in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. One of the very few cases in which clear evidence exists that may indicate a freak wave incident is the 1978 loss of the freighter MS München.
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