How scientists recreated a monster wave that looks like Hokusai’s famous image

Accounts by mariners of freak or rogue waves out in the ocean have long been a common occurrence but until relatively recently remained anecdotal. That is, until January 1 1995, when a huge wave was observed – and recorded – at the Draupner Oil platform in the North Sea.

It was one of the first reliable measurements of a freak wave in the ocean and at a height of 25.6 meters, it was over two times the height of the waves that surrounded it.

Appearing seemingly from nowhere, this seminal observation initiated many years of research into the possible causes of freak ocean waves. Various theories exist, perhaps the most simple of which is that ocean waves are random and while freak waves are rare, they are entirely predictable. Other theories have suggested that under certain conditions waves can become unstable, causing small waves to grow into much larger freak waves.

We decided to see if we could recreate this wave in the laboratory, to understand more about how freak waves happen in the first place. Clearly it is not possible to recreate waves that are 25 meters high and several hundred meters wide in a laboratory. So we reduced the scale by maintaining the same ratios of wavelength to water depth and wave height. Although our wave was 35 times smaller than the actual Draupner wave, the same physical processes dictated the behavior of the waves we produced.

The height of ocean waves is limited when waves break. When we tried to recreate the wave measured at the Draupner platform by creating ones that travelled in the same direction, they broke about two meters before reaching the scaled height of the wave we wanted.