Rogue wave could have downed El Faro cargo ship, research shows

"A ship moving along a navigation route covers more space-time area, increasing the probability that it would encounter a large wave," researcher Francesco Fedele said.
By Brooks Hays  |  Sept. 19, 2017 at 4:36 PM
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Sept. 19 (UPI) -- New research suggests the ocean conditions during Hurricane Joaquin could have produced a rogue wave capable of downing El Faro, a merchant vessel that sank just east of the Bahamas in 2015.

Researchers used a new computer model, combined with weather and sea data from the time and place of El Faro's sinking, to determine whether a rogue wave might explain the deadly wreck. Their analysis -- detailed this week in the journal Scientific Reports -- revealed a one-in-130 chance that the ocean conditions produced a rogue wave measuring 46 feet in height.

Thirty-three crew members were killed when El Faro sank as it traveled from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico. The rogue wave investigation was initiated by the National Transportation Safety Board and carried out with the assistance of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

"Hurricanes produce very extreme conditions with strong winds, so you have very energetic sea states that can increase the probability of these events," Francesco Fedele, an associate professor of engineering at Georgia Tech, said in a news release. "We believe this first study of rogue waves occurring over space and time during hurricanes will help improve real-time forecasting for shipping companies and other organizations that need to understand the risk of extreme events in the oceans."

Unlike tsunamis, rogue waves come and go in less than 20 seconds. They don't travel long distances, but can seemingly arise out of nowhere. They're formed by a wave phenomena called constructive interference and unique oceanic conditions. Constructive interference described the joining together of two smaller waves to form a much larger wave.

Fedele and his colleagues developed a rogue wave prediction model that accounted for the effects of space and time. The model was inspired by models used calculate the likelihood of surfers encountering a large wave as they paddle around a group of smaller waves near a beach -- as opposed to staying in one location. Before it sank, El Faro drifted for roughly an hour after losing engine power.

"A ship moving along a navigation route covers more space-time area, increasing the probability that it would encounter a large wave," Fedele said. "We simulated the ocean state at the time of the sinking, and to that we added predictions of the ocean conditions. We did wave simulations based on those to understand the kind of conditions the ship encountered."

Researchers believe their model could be used to better predict extreme waves and provide warnings to shipping companies when the likelihood of a rogue wave spikes.

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