Giant waves are both fearsome and awesome. Author Susan Casey speaks with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about her book, “The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean”. The book follows big wave surfers, mariners and scientists who have encountered huge waves and have lived to tell the tale.
GELLERMAN: Monster waves that sink ships leaving not a trace or a survivor are the stuff of myth, legend – and Hollywood. But it turns out they're real. In fact, satellites and ocean tracking instruments show that monster waves are not that uncommon - they strike a ship about once every two weeks. Susan Casey writes about them in her book: “The Wave, in Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean”, and talked with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.
CASEY: Those ships are hitting rogue waves in storm conditions, you know, waves that can be three and even four times bigger than the seas around them, so if you’ve got 50 foot seas, you can easily get a 100 or a 125 foot rogue wave. And scientists really had to reckon with the fact that these waves do exist.
CURWOOD: In your book, Susan Casey, you tell the story of a scientific ship in the UK that documented these giant waves. Could you tell us that story now please?
CASEY: Yes, the RRS Discovery. I read about this and I had to read the article twice to believe what I was reading- was a group of scientists from Britian and Scotland who were out in the North Atlantic and they were hit by about 48 hours worth of 60,70,80,90 and even 100 foot waves. And they were trapped out there in these waves, and almost didn’t survive them.
And what was great, not so much for them, but for everyone else, was that the ship had all kinds of state-of-the-art scientific instruments on it, so it was perfectly equipped to capture every measurement of what the ocean was doing. And what they found out and eventually published a paper about was that the models, the meteorological models and the wave models, had not predicted these waves, that they shouldn’t have been there, and that in fact, the kinds of really extreme and really freakish seas that had been sort of seen as sailors’ tall tales, really did exist. There was direct proof there.
CURWOOD: So what’s a really big wave?
CASEY: Well, in the book, I talk about a wave that happened in 1958 in a very spooky area of the Alaskan coast that was 1,740 feet tall. That’s a big wave! (laughs)
CURWOOD: Wait a second, that’s the empire state building!
CASEY: I think plus some. That is the biggest wave that has been measured accurately. And the reason they were able to know exactly how big that wave was, was geologists were later able to go in and measure where the trees stop. It’s like a razor came along and just shaved them all off. And when they were up there, looking into that, they found out that this had happened quite regularly in this bay.
CURWOOD: Now this is all related to landslides and earthquakes, that sort of thing?
CASEY: Yes, and in the book, I talk about several different types of giant waves. In that case it was kind of a localized tsunami. The most dramatic waves that we have here on Earth are caused by big landslides either on the land that then fall into the water, or below the sea and cause tsunamis. And they can be provoked by earthquakes, they can be provoked by a volcanic island collapsing, but those are the really dramatic ones. Those are the ones that re-write the maps.
CURWOOD: Now, one thing that you mention in your book is that the average height of ocean waves seems to be increasing. Why is that? And should we be worried about it?
CASEY: Well, I think that ocean has always been a very powerful and volatile place. And the increase that seems to be happening in waves has to do with a number of different effects. One of them is, are these over-arching climate patterns, and these are really very poorly understood things because we haven’t had the ability to measure, you know, long-time climate patterns because we haven’t been doing it for very long, and we haven’t even been around that long when you think of geological time. So, that, the increased wind that comes from a warmer ocean and potentially stormier environment, just caused by climate change…So, I don’t know about worried, but aware, certainly.
CURWOOD: So, lets talk about climate change and big waves. You list several things in your book that could change wave patterns. For one thing, you say that climate change could increase the frequency of earthquakes. How’s that?
CASEY: This is what happens: when glaciers melt, they tend to change distribution of weight. It’s either more or less weight on the land or on the seabed, and it’s a pretty dramatic amount, like if the sea goes up even a small bit in terms of sea level, that adds up to so much weight and that then weighs the tectonic plates and various fault lines differently. They call it isostatic rebound.
And what they suspect is that at the end of the last ice age, when the glaciers were sort of pouring into the ocean and parallels to what we’ve got now with rapidly shrinking glaciers, there was a flurry of earthquake and volcanic activity. You know, when things are moving around, when there’s sediment or earthquakes below the water, or even on land and falling into the water, that can equate to a tsunami.
CURWOOD: So how likely is it that science is going to be able to predict big waves, or should we just, you know, chalk 'em up to the unpredictable nature of nature?
CASEY: Well, I think nature is always going to defy our attempts to completely dissect it in any sort of rational, logical way, because chaos and random events are really a part of its complexity. But there are some very, very smart people trying to make better climate models and better wave models, and to better understand how we can be in harmony with these potentially destructive or, certainly incredibly powerful forces, and that work just goes on continuously.
And when you have something like the tsunami of 2004 and a tragedy like that or, the sort of amazing power that was witnessed as the storm surge came over the levees in Hurricane Katrina, I think it shows how important it is going to be for us to understand this in such a way that we can live with it.
CURWOOD: Part of your book you devote to a search for, I guess a surfing holy grail, what, to ride a hundred foot wave?
CURWOOD: Why would someone want to ride a hundred foot wave? It sounds like a death wish to me!
CASEY: I would definitely agree with you. I wanted to find out. I saw a 20-foot wave years ago and had never forgotten how terrified I was when I saw it. And somebody was riding it and I didn’t understand how he could survive it. And then, a few years later, they started tow surfing and I saw pictures of some of the characters in my book riding 60 and 70-foot waves, and I was absolutely riveted. I couldn’t understand how people didn’t die every time they went out.
CURWOOD: You need to explain tow surfing.
CASEY: Tow surfing was invented in 1995 as a means to ride bigger and bigger waves. Waves that are bigger than, say, 30 or 40 feet, are not possible for us to paddle into. They’re just moving too fast. I described it in the book as trying to catch the subway by crawling. You’re just not going to get it, it’s just going to go thundering past you. So, the biggest most interesting waves for some of the surfers were in the, what they call the un-ridden realm. And they, eventually, through a sort of painful trial and error, figured out that they could use jet skis to pull a partner onto the crest of the wave. And it could be theoretically, it could be any size wave, it could be a 100-foot wave, but they were doing it with 60 and 70-foot waves with success.
CURWOOD: This sounds absolutely nuts! A jet ski is not the easiest thing in the world to handle, now you’re going to have this 60-feet above… you know, there’s a big hole at the end of that wave!
CASEY: Well and not to mention that water is, you know, 800-times denser than air, so when it comes crashing down on your head it does some damage. And as I said, it was a very painful trial and error process.
CURWOOD: How many people get killed doing this?
CASEY: You know, every so often someone will get killed or injured very badly. I think what happens a lot more often is they get scared to the point where they never want to do it again. I asked a lot of them to describe to me what it feels like to be held down by a wave that big, and I think it’s a truly fearsome experience. And some of the best surfers that I encountered and interviewed, said, you know, they had instances where they really, as one surfer put it, saw the mandala. And they didn’t want to go back out, right back out there and do this think they loved. It took years to feel like they were in control again.
CURWOOD: In other words, they thought they were about to die. They were drowning.
CASEY: Yeah, and most of them do have that experience.
CURWOOD: And you feel fine going out to sea knowing that these waves are out there?
CASEY: I definitely would, it’s just, I think that you always have to have your wits about you and you have to know that these waves are out there. And I also think the last thing that I would want people to do is read this book and think ‘I’m more scared of the ocean.’ I mean, I feel as though part of my purpose in writing it was so we could understand more this great force that’s so much a part of the planet that we live on, and if we understand it more then maybe we can respect it a little bit more. Because, one of the things that seems so counterproductive is to treat the ocean like it’s this other thing over there and we can dump stuff into it and we don’t have to worry about understanding it. But what I’d like to do is shed more light on what’s going on in the darkest heart of the ocean.
CURWOOD: Susan Casey’s new book is called “The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean.” Thank you so much, Susan.
CASEY: Thank you!
GELLERMAN: That's Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.
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