With the Potential to Predict Rogue Waves, Cruise Ships May Soon Have a Duty to Take Adequate Precautions

Most people had never heard of the phenomenon known as a rogue wave until one such wave made recent headlines by killing a passenger on a Viking cruise ship. The wave smashed into the side of the ship, breaking numerous windows in passenger cabins. A 62-year-old woman was killed after apparently being struck by glass with great force, and several other passengers were treated for injuries.

Labeling the incident as “rogue” makes it seem unpredictable and implies that the cruise ship company should not be responsible for harm caused. However, research indicates that these types of incidents are not entirely unpredictable. That raises the question of what cruise lines and other maritime companies have an obligation to do to keep passengers and crew safe.

What is a Rogue Wave?

What scientists now refer to as a rogue wave is defined technically as a wave that is twice as high as the waves around it. With a steep slope upwards and a deep trench below, these waves have been described as resembling a wall of water rising from the ocean. 

While they often occur during storms of various types, they have also been known to arise in calm waters. For that reason, among others, many have assumed these waves are completely unpredictable. It has only been since the mid 1990s that scientists have even classified them as a genuine phenomenon. While mariners spoke of these waves for centuries, it was not until the 20th Century that ships were able to weather these events frequently enough to provide accounts from surviving witnesses.

If a rogue wave hits a vessel in the open sea, it can cause serious and even fatal damage, as passengers on the Viking Polaris learned recently. In 1966, an Italian cruise ship suffered a hit from an 80 foot rogue wave that killed three and caused significant damage. Scientists obtained firm evidence of rogue waves in 1995 when a wave hit an oil rig off the coast of Norway. A laser detector on the scaffolding measured the wave at 85 feet above the surface.

Causes of Rogue Waves

By monitoring data from buoys and conducting lab experiments, scientists have determined that rogue waves are produced in a very different manner from similarly-destructive tsunamis. While tsunamis are caused by an earthquake or landslide that suddenly displaces massive amounts of water, rogue waves are formed by combinations of wave movements in the ocean.

Scientists are working with two primary mathematical theories to explain the movements that give rise to rogue waves, either based on overlap of waves traveling at different speeds or the aggregation of waves traveling in groups. 

Some mathematicians assert that even if they do not know exactly what causes rogue waves, they can still predict these waves accurately using a statistical framework known as large deviation theory. However, the computation process will need to be sped up to make the predictions work with real-time data. Many scientists say we have the technology to monitor the waves as needed, but have not put measures in place to make the frequent calculations needed to predict rogue waves.

Perhaps the most recent tragedy will prompt the industry to move faster in this direction.

Help After Maritime Tragedy

Working and traveling at sea presents many dangers, and many times those aboard vessels are not adequately protected from those dangers. When failure to act responsibly or to provide property safety equipment leads to injuries or loss of life at sea, the experienced team at Latti & Anderson helps victims and their families receive fair treatment and compensation for their losses. Contact us at any time if you have a matter you’d like to discuss.