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Success stories Published on 26-Feb-2004

Title Monsters of the deep

Huge ocean waves capable of sinking large ships are rare. But recent studies have shown that they are much less rare than previously believed. A German-led consortium has developed novel forecasting techniques and unique tracking systems which have already influenced maritime safety procedures. It has made advances in both on-ship radar technology and satellite imaging of the sea. This means that the occurrence of freak waves can now be documented both from space and ocean platforms, as can their destructive effect on shipping, offshore structures and coastal areas.

A very large wave breaks over the deck of a ship in rough weather.
A very large wave breaks over the deck of a ship in rough weather.
More than 200 supercarriers – cargo ships over 200 metres long – have been lost at sea during the past 20 years. Eyewitness reports suggest that many of them have been sunk by freak waves, high and violent walls of water that can rise up suddenly even in moderately calm waters.

For many years, tales of these towering monster waves were generally dismissed as exaggeration, probably due to their rarity. Their existence is no longer in doubt, but they have only been the subject of serious research in the last decade or so. It is still not possible to predict these waves. The mathematical models currently available provide a statistical picture of the overall state of the sea at a particular time and place, without making any provision for individual wave heights. In fact, the forecasting of sea conditions remains little changed from the days of the Second World War.

It is also not well understood how giant waves are formed, although they are reported more frequently in certain regions, for instance in the Gulf Stream and the Nantucket Shoals, and around Cape Horn. Refraction around shoals and islands, and interactions between waves, sea currents and the wind, offer the best explanations. Global research efforts have so far been fragmentary. The MaxWave project represents the first concerted attempt to detect the occurrence of freak waves globally, and to investigate how they affect marine structures. The project consortium comprises 11 organisations from six European Union countries specialising in meteorology, oceanography and marine design. The partners are universities, research centres, weather services and classification societies, and one commercial enterprise. The research centre GKSS in Germany, which coordinates the project, is using the forecast results in co-operative projects with industry and government agencies.

Safer havens
A steep and very-long crested wave approaching the stern of a bulk carrier sailing in the Atlantic Ocean.
A steep and very-long crested wave approaching the stern of a bulk carrier sailing in the Atlantic Ocean.
MaxWave’s objectives are to improve oceanographic information and construct forecasting models that take into account the dangers of extreme ocean waves. In their final form, the models will apply statistical parameters to match the risk of freak wave occurrence with a given weather event. In this way, the results from MaxWave should significantly enhance marine construction, design and operation – and, of course, safety on the ocean. It will contribute to the United Nations programme, Global Maritime Distress Safety System, and has the potential to provide a warning system for maritime services.

Even before the project’s conclusion in December 2003, major changes in the maritime industry have already been initiated. Wolfgang Rosenthal, project coordinator at the institute for coastal research at GKSS, explains. “On the basis of our initial findings, the International Maritime Organisation is demanding reinforced hatch covers on ocean-going bulk carriers. This is an important modification. A shipyard in the north of Germany also plans to use the deterministic sea surface we construct from satellite images to make designer surfaces to study ship behaviour. In addition, our French meteorological office and German space agency partners are co-operating to implement a routine for converting satellite images into sea surface topography. This will be applied for forecasting extreme sea events, and is a direct outcome of the MaxWave project.

“The main challenge ahead is to gain full acceptance of this novel research by the authorities, forecasting services and maritime industries. This will not be easy, because the economic pressures of commercial competition make the costs of implementing new procedures unattractive. As we have pointed out, some uncertainties do still exist, and this is being used to justify waiting until better information about abnormal waves becomes available. I believe this is wrong, but we should in any case press ahead in order to get this information.”

Improved forecasting
The consortium’s only commercial partner, Oceanwaves, provides the on-board radar system used by the project to evaluate extreme wave events. The device is already sold commercially, but after adaptation will be proposed as a 'black box' instrument to be carried by ships. This novel system will permit the monitoring of sea conditions in real time, giving immediate risk assessments as well as providing a documentary record in case of accident. When linked to weather stations, the systems should greatly improve offshore weather forecasting. The documentation of accidents due to individual abnormal waves will serve as valuable evidence for insurance companies with regard to legal claims.

The Oceanwaves company and the German space agency partner are each developing on-board and satellite radar technologies to detect the properties of individual sea waves. The combined product will enable measurement of sea conditions over a given area of the ocean surface, rather than relying on extrapolation from a time series taken at a point location, which is the current practice. “Intellectual property rights for the radar software development will go to Oceanwaves, to be integrated into their commercial product,” says Rosenthal. “An interface between the radar software and the radar image is under development. The device in its present form is already used by the maritime industries, so we expect to see strong demand for the more advanced system.”

  • Title
    Rogue waves – Forecast and impact on marine structures (MAXWAVE)
  • Reference
  • Programme
    FP5: Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development
  • Contact
    Dr Wolfgang Rosenthal
    GKSS-Forschungszentrum, Institut für Küstenforschung
  • Partners
    GKSS-Forschungszentrum, Institut für Küstenforschung, Germany
    Meteo-France, France
    Ministry of Defence, UK
    OceanWaves GmbH, Germany
    Instituto Superior Tecnico, Portugal
    Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Research and Development, Belgium
    Institute of Hydro Engineering – Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland
    Norwegian Meteorological Office, Norway
    Det Norske Veritas A/S, Norway
    German Aerospace Centre, Germany
    Technische Universitaet Berlin, Germany