ARCHIVED - NRC Researcher Reassures Canadians and Cruise Passengers

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May 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario


On Tuesday April 19th the Discovery Channel's Jay Ingram interviewed NRC's Dr. Bruce Colbourne about rogue waves, such as the one involved in the highly publicized April 16th cruise ship incident. Dr. Colbourne was in front of the cameras for the "Riding a monster wave" segment of Discovery's Daily Planet program to share his expertise about how rogue waves occur and the level of risk involved.

Armed with years of research on the effects of waves on offshore and aquaculture structures, as well as television experience from appearing on various Discovery Channel Programs, Dr. Colbourne was well equipped to respond to Jay's questions.

Dr. Bruce Colbourne
Dr. Bruce Colbourne

Dr. Colbourne, a research officer at the NRC Institute for Ocean Technology (NRC-IOT) who is currently on secondment to the NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP) in St. John's, reassured Daily Planet viewers that these waves rarely occur and pose a minimal risk to cruise passengers.

According to Dr. Colbourne, rogue waves – also called episodic waves – are most likely to arise in open waters like the Atlantic Ocean where the Norwegian Dawn was when the impact of a wave knocked out windows on the ship's tenth deck and flooded 62 cabins.

"Waves in the open ocean are dispersive," says Dr. Colbourne. "Long waves travel faster than shorter waves. Sometimes a group of normal waves pile up in one location and combine to form an unusually high wave (a rogue wave)." He adds that the waves then quickly disperse again.

Ship model

Although rogue waves can cause damage when they strike a ship or offshore structure, they are unlikely to capsize or sink a ship. While modern ships are equipped with stabilizers to minimize rolling in rough waters, rogue waves do not generally threaten to destabilize a vessel. Why? Because in addition to being high these large waves are also quite long and they only occur as a single wave.

They also don't pose a threat to people or watercraft at the shore or on land because when the waves reach shallower waters they dissipate much of their energy.

Although predictions cannot be made for the occurrence of rogue waves in open waters, Dr. Colbourne notes that rogue waves can be generated in NRC-IOT's test facilities. Researchers generate a series of waves that start with short waves and gradually work their way up to longer waves such that the waves all combine at one location to create an episodic wave. This research setting provides them with opportunities to learn more by studying the wave behaviour.

Dr. Colbourne's April 18 Daily Planet interview is available in English from the Discovery Channel Web site:

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