On January 1, 1995, a freak wave was observed in the North Sea, and measurements of the wave were made on the Draupner Oil Platform. That was one of the first confirmed observations of a freak wave in the ocean. Freak waves are unexpectedly large compared to surrounding waves in the ocean.
Waves of that type appear suddenly, and without warning and could lead to catastrophes such as the sinking of large ships. Scientists from the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh set out to reproduce the Draupner wave in the laboratory to understand how the freak wave formed.
The team reports that it was successful in reconstructing the wave using a pair of smaller wave groups and varying the crossing angle of the waves. Crossing angle is the angle at which two groups of waves travel. The creation of the freak wave in the lab moves scientists one step closer to understanding potential mechanisms behind the phenomenon said researcher Dr. Mark McAllister from Oxford.
The scientists say that it was the crossing angle between the two groups of waves that was critical to their creation of the wave in the lab. It’s only possible, according to the team, to reproduce the freak wave when the crossing angle between the two groups of waves was about 120-degrees. When waves aren’t crossing, wave breaking limits the height that a wave can achieve.
When waves cross at large angles, wave breaking behavior changes and doesn’t limit the height a wave can achieve in the same way. Interestingly, the wave the team created in the lab greatly resembled the woodblock print from the early 1800s by Japanese artists Katsushika Hokusai called “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” The Draupner wave had a height of 84-feet in an area known to commonly have waves 39-feet high.