I still remember the horror I felt when I learned four fishermen had been lost in a storm around here 115 miles off the beaches of Galveston, Texas in 2013. It had been night, and they’d tied up their tiny 50-foot ship to an oil rig to wait out the rough stuff. John Reynolds, the only survivor, recounted that something in the inky darkness had hit them as they slept and torn the wheel house and canopy away and pulled the ship down to the bowels of the Gulf of Mexico within two minutes.
It was “a rogue wave, a freak wave,” said Reynolds, or, more ominously, “something else.”
Could the lives of those men had been saved if they’d had two to three minutes’ warning—enough time, say, to climb the side of the rig? A new project from MIT’s Themis Sapsis and Will Cousins certainly hopes so. It focuses on using a ship’s onboard high-resolution LIDAR and radar to easily predict rogue waves, the beastly swells ranging from around 10 to 100 feet that sometimes mysteriously pop up in the ocean, likely the result of atmospheric pressure or intersecting wave systems. They’re perhaps most famous as the presumed reason for the 1991 loss of the Andrea Gail, the fishing vessel depicted in the 2000 film A Perfect Storm.
Traditionally, predicting this kind of thing has relied on simulating every individual wave in a particular body of water—a setup, in other words, that you’ll likely only see in a proper weather station with millions of dollars and multiple computers to draw on. The algorithm developed by Sapsis and Cousins, by contrast, simply focuses on studying the length, height, and location of the waves around the ship to make predictions as to whether they’ll become rogue waves within the next couple of minutes.
You’ll only get about three minutes to work with as a result, and let’s face it, there are Hulu commercials longer than that. But otherwise safely lashed to a stable rig on stormy seas or given enough time to sail out of the way, that might mean the difference between life and death.
Check out the video above for more information about how it works in action.