A British research team has observed some of the biggest sea swells ever measured. A whole series of giant waves hammered into their ship that were so big, according to computer models used to set safety standards for ships and oil rigs, they shouldn't even exist. When the RRS Discovery set out to sea, the crew was expecting stormy weather. Meteorologists had predicted a violent storm, and the scientists -- a team from Britain's National Oceanography Center -- wanted to observe it from up close. What they ended up experiencing went far beyond anything they could have imagined.
Near the island of Rockall, 250 kilometers (155 miles) west of Scotland, the Discovery's crew witnessed the largest waves ever measured by a scientific instrument on the open sea, according to an article the scientists have only now published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. With a height of up to 29.1 meters (95 feet) from trough to crest, the single waves are the highest ever measured. In terms of so-called significant wave height, they established a new record, according to the scientists: 18.5 meters (61 feet). Significant wave height is the median height of a wave's upper third. It corresponds roughly to the sea swell that experienced sailors can estimate with the naked eye. Even more astonishing, the giant waves had not appeared individually, but in a group. Previously waves of such size were assumed to only appear alone.
The scientists think a so-called resonance effect was responsible for the monstrous waves: waves and wind travelled across the Atlantic at practically the same speed. The storm was able to pump energy into the waves efficiently for a long time, building them up to giant size. The new data may spell trouble for sailors and shipbuilders, the British scientists believe. Their research results suggest that giant waves may be much more common than previously believed. The waves observed were not predicted by the computer simulation, and this has implications for the construction of ships and oil rigs.