Focusing on forecasts
The only way to really know what is going on in the unpredictable oceans is to watch, Wu says. He acknowledges, however, that the investments in the instruments and time necessary for such fieldwork are immense. "We need to identify places where [rogue waves] are more likely to occur," he says, emphasizing the importance of numerical models—including the nontrivial accounting of wind and wave breaking—at this step, "and then focus on those areas."
Focusing on an optical wave analogue may actually help scientists limit where they need to look. Light waves travel in optical fibers similarly to water waves traveling in the open ocean. "In optics we're dealing with a similar phenomenon, but doing experiments on the tabletop and acquiring data in only a fraction of a second," says U.C. Los Angeles's Solli. Although he doesn't suggest that optical experiments should replace ocean research, he suggests it could be a guide. Mapping light-wave conditions to the ocean could uncover parallel parameters that give rise to water waves. "Instead of looking for a needle in a haystack in the water, you could benefit from some beginning wisdom and narrow down the range," adds Solli, who co-authored a paper on optical rogue waves in the December 2007 edition of Nature. (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.)
Janssen agrees with the need for more direct observations of ocean behavior. "We can make a theoretical prediction," he says. "But then we have to go out and see if nature agrees." If it does, the results "could provide a prediction scenario—made visible on maps—of hot spots that could change day to day," Janssen says. This could work much like tornado forecasting.
Only two passengers were seriously hurt in the Teutonic incident—one suffered a broken jaw and the other a severed foot. They were fortunate. "Had it struck us later on in the day many passengers would have been promenading in the sunshine, without doubt," Officer Bartlett told the Times. "There is no telling how many of them would have been injured." Extreme waves do not always offer such merciful timing, however. Forecasts could be crucial in helping future ocean liners evade the voracious sea monsters.