Satellite data document ‘rogue’ waves

From Ocean Navigator #141
October 2004
In December 2000, the European Space Agency ( and a

consortium of six European nations founded MaxWave, a research program that would use satellites to determine whether so-called rogue waves, fabled giants of the sea that have reportedly caused numerous ship sinkings, existed in reality. In the years since, ESA scientists have been amazed, and no doubt somewhat appalled, to discover the frequency of such waves, many of which are standing walls of water – not long-interval swells – that can rise to heights of 100 feet.

Anecdotal evidence has existed for as long as anyone has been telling sea stories, but the study has reportedly found that giant waves exist in numerous parts of the world’s oceans, particularly where strong ocean currents meet, such as the convergence between the Atlantic and Indian oceans off South Africa.

Image Credit: Images courtesy ESA

Using radar-equipped satellite cameras, physical oceanographers can now decipher wave energy and direction to observe oversized waves at sea.

Using ERS (European Remote-Sensing) satellites, which are equipped with “synthetic aperture radar” that allows the satellites to penetrate cloud cover, the data were used to track the frequency of such waves on a global scale, according to the ESA. Satellites with conventional imaging devices are unable to see the surface of the sea during storms, when waves are highest. The data will reportedly be used for two reasons: to design ships to withstand such waves, and to determine whether it will be possible to forecast the existence and whereabouts of such waves.

By Ocean Navigator