What is a rogue wave? Where and when extreme freak waves happen after North Pacific Ocean records biggest ever

The first ever rogue wave to be detected was the Draupner wave in the North Sea in 1995

Rogue waves are not necessarily the tallest on record but instead dwarf the waves around them (image: AFP/Getty Images)

As recent natural disasters like the Tonga volcanic eruption have proven, humanity can never fully prepare for nor grasp the true extent of mother nature’s sheer power.

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Nature’s power became apparent again this month when scientists revealed the largest ever rogue wave had been recorded in the Pacific Ocean.

Measuring 17.6 meters high (58ft), the wave is believed to have been a once in every 1,300 years occurrence – although climate change could mean the record is soon broken again.

So how do rogue waves happen – and what caused the North Pacific Ocean record breaker?

Here’s what you need to know.

The first rogue wave to be recorded by humans struck a North Sea oil platform off the Norwegian Coast (image: Getty Images)

What is a rogue wave?

Until relatively recently, rogue waves were thought to be nautical myths – tall tales to pad out sea shanties or boast about in the pub.

But since 1995, more than a dozen have been recorded using scientific buoys in oceans, and even lakes.

They are defined as waves which are more than twice the height of other waves around them.

Coastal waves tend to be much smaller than ocean waves (image: AFP/Getty Images)

So they are not necessarily the biggest waves on record, but they are proportionally the largest.

Why rogue waves occur is currently unknown, so it is hard to predict when and where they could strike.

This unpredictability and their extreme power is cited by scientists as a major concern.

What was the Draupner wave?

The Draupner wave was the first-ever rogue wave humans were able to record and accurately measure.

It struck an oil drilling platform in the North Sea off the coast of Norway on 1 January 1995.

The wave measured 26 meters (85ft) while all the waves around it were around 12 meters tall (39ft).

At the time, it completely challenged all scientific modelling.

How big was the rogue wave recorded in the Pacific?

The record-breaking rogue wave was recorded off the coast of Canada in the North Pacific Ocean in November 2020.

It is being called the Ucluelet wave and is named after the British Columbia port the buoy was closest to when the wave was recorded.

While the latest rogue wave was much smaller than the Draupner wave, measuring 17.6 meters in height (58ft), it was almost three-times the size of the waves around it – as this video simulation shows.

Scientists believe it is once in every 1,300 year occurrence.

But a recent study has predicted wave heights in the Pacific Ocean are going to increase, meaning it might not hold the rogue wave record for that long.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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