Tuesday, November 16, 2010

History: Going Rogue

Our local paper, Anchorage Daily News, had a McClatchy Newspapers article in its Sunday Nation & World section that caught my eye right away. Entitled “Ocean waves picking up power” and written by Les Blumenthal, the article has two points of particular interest to me. First and foremost, of course, is the over arching issue of what are now known as “rogue waves”. These are huge walls of water, sometimes reported to be as tall as a ten story building (approximately 100 feet) that can appear out of nowhere, even in a seemingly calm sea, and take out any ship in their path. The second was an issue of specific place.

First, the article indicates that waves in general and coastal waves in particular are getting “bigger”. My second point of interest comes in from the area where the data on waves specific to the bulk of the article has been collected. The area known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” is at the mouth of the Columbia River in the U.S. State of Washington. For years pilots have navigated these treacherous waters to ride out to large ships at anchor well off shore. My mother’s father was a caulker of ships by trade and he worked in dockyards in both Washington and Oregon. I remember him telling of ships he’d worked on and men he’d known going down in the area, part of which is known as Cape Disappointment. So the unusual waves in this area are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a new phenomena but the data being collected on them is.

As the article eventually gets around to telling us, the truly frightening “rogue waves”, which are really the standard for any wave that wants to call itself “large”, began to be seriously studied only recently in 2004. Any data prior to that is eye witness evidence or hearsay. Documentation of large rogue waves, however, goes back to Ancient Roman times when Pliny spoke of enormous waves swamping whole fleets of Roman triremes. The waves, which not only loom large but create unusually shallow troughs before and after them referred to by seamen as “holes in the sea”, seem to have no rhyme or reason. They are not something a ship can prepare for, although they are more common in storms for obvious reasons, and are therefore particularly deadly.

Rogue waves occur all over the world and in places other than the oceans. As noted above, the Mediterranean has known such monsters in the past. The Great Lakes are no strangers to the phenomena and in fact a specific type of rogue waves, known as the Three Sisters, is right at home in that vast, interior sea. The Sisters are a group of three waves, each a bit larger than the one ahead of it, that wash over a ship in rapid succession, effectively scuttling her in a matter of minutes. Some experts speculate that the famous Edmund Fitzgerald may have been hit by a Three Sisters formation of waves before she went down in Lake Superior in 1975.

Initial estimates quoted in the article indicate that wave height may be increasing as much as 4 inches a year off the coast of the Northwestern U.S. Buoy data regarding this goes back to the 1970s and scientists are anticipating that the numbers will continue to increase. The main culprit is thought to be climate change which is a very real issue with continuing repercussions for all the Earth’s bodies of water. Although I will never be a climate change apologist (I find that as ludicrous as believing in “intelligent design”), the article made me think that some unnecessary conclusions are being made prior to more thorough study. I also wonder how much historical research has been done and applied. Sailors like to tell tall tales and always have, but most of it comes from a grain of truth that should be considered. Of course, that may just be my personal bias.

The last four paragraphs of the article seem, however, to pull the findings back to reality. Peter Adams of the University of Florida is working on a 30 year wave height study which finds waves increasing by about a couple of centimeters a year. As he notes:

Given that there are 3 million waves a year, one wave every 10 seconds, it’s not that alarming.

What Adams does find disconcerting is the relative increase in the height of those rogue waves, which may be growing more rapidly than the average breaker. As he indicates the changes in storm formations as well as increasing intensity of winter storms in both hemispheres may mean bigger rogue waves and deeper holes in the ocean. Mind your way out there, mates; forewarned is forearmed.

Header: Cape Disappointment, Washington via Wallpaper.org


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I think I may have found a link to the article in question (or at least part of it):


Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and thankee. I couldn't find it at ADN.com which isn't really surprising. Neither Sarah Palin nor Joe Miller featured prominently in the article so really, why bother right?

Capt. John Swallow said...

Interesting article and study - and somewhat unusual in light of another environmental occurrence - lower water levels. I can attest first hand that in the Great Lakes alone, water levels have dropped as much as 6-10 feet in places. In addition, the annual snowfall in more northerly parts has been considerably less (more recycled evaporation than actual freshly created snow) which contributes to this issue.
There was a time not long ago that the mighty waves of Lake Huron would "freeze" in winter creating little mountain ranges up to 10 feet tall...now even Huron barely freezes more than 20 yards from shore!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Captain! You bring up a good point that gets to the heart of the specificities of the studies addressed in the article. Washington and Florida hardly compromise "the World", after all. While waves may be getting larger in certain areas, could they be shrinking in others? Of course. The only constant is change, sure, but what do those changes mean for the future of our seas and oceans? And did the same changes occur in the past without anyone being able to calibrate them? It's as much about questions as answers.

Pauline said...

Yikes! I said "compromise" when I meant "comprise". You know, South Beach might "compromise" the world once in a while but...