Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believe they have successfully developed an early warning system for rogue waves that could save the lives of sailors and vessel crews.

Rogue waves can strike even in peaceful waters with no warning, towering up to eight times higher than the surrounding sea, deluging vessels. A new prediction tool can give the vessel crew a two to three minute warning of an impending rogue wave.

Rogue, killer or freak waves have been witnessed for hundreds of years, and have been felt more as a real phenomenon in the past few decades.

Current Methods Are Expensive

At present, predicting freak waves racing toward ships would require a full room of supercomputers, which are too big for small fishing boats and ships. Now, a prediction tool may give sailors enough time to shut down essential ship operations or offshore platform.

"It's precise in the sense that it's telling us very accurately the location and the time that this rare event will happen," said Themis Sapsis, assistant professor at MIT.

"We have a range of possibilities, and we can say that this will be a dangerous wave, and you'd better do something. That's really all you need," he added.

Simpler And Faster Algorithm

MIT engineers looked at waves in a different way – based on the observation that sometimes waves group themselves together while travelling on the ocean. They found that these waves end up swapping energy that can ultimately lead to the formation of a rogue wave.

They identified common patterns in groups of waves that could lead to the formation of rogue waves. The data taken from measurements of buoys in the ocean were combined with nonlinear analysis of the underlying water wave equations.

They quantified the change a rogue wave could form and analyzed which clusters could possibly form into rogue waves. With all these data, a simple algorithm to predict a rogue wave based on incoming data was developed.

"The approach is original – it is fast, easy to implement, and it does not require computational power," Miguel Onorato, professor of physics at the University of Turin said. He was not part of the study.

"Tests in wave basins and field measurements data are needed in order to establish reliability of the tool in realistic conditions," he added.

The method formulated by Sapsis and Will Cousins requires LIDAR, RADAR and a laptop to perform the computation. This can alert the crew to have adequate time to vacate the deck and observe precautionary measures before the disaster strikes.

Photo: Barbara Walsh | Flickr

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