Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean

Stories about giant, freaky, rogue waves 100 feet and higher have always been around. But scientists, believing that the basic physics of ocean waves indicated it was virtually impossible for these waves to exist, considered reported sighting to be nothing more than nautical tall tales spun by over enthusiastic mariners. 

A couple of decades ago that all changed when a group of scientists, caught onboard a British research ship during a vicious North Sea storm, recorded waves reaching 90 feet and higher. Suddenly, what had been considered nautical tall tales became  scientific fact. Rogue waves did exist and they happened a lot, something that has scientists struggling for answers and big wave surfers very happy.

Fascinated by this phenomenon, author Susan Casey spent five years researching and  seeking explanations from wave scientists, mariners, and surfers about these rogue waves. It’s a journey that took her around the world, from surfing hot spots such as Hawaii and Tahiti to the shipping insurers in London and salvage experts in South Africa.

The resultant book The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean is a fascinating and addictive account of the unknown rogue waves that attracts, in particular, two seriously diverse groups – extreme surfers who spend their lives waiting for the ultimate rouge wave and brainy wave scientists who struggle to create more effective climate models and forecasts.

While Casey appears more at home with the surfers, watching the waves and the action, she also spent time with wave scientists. Attending the 10th International Workshop and Wave Hindcasting and Forecasting and Coastal Hazard Symposium in, where else, the North Shore of Hawaii, Casey looked for answers to the big question:  Will global warming lead to stormier oceans and bigger waves?  The answer, given hesitantly as there is not enough data to confirm a long-term trend, was a resounding yes.

But what data there is leans towards a future of freakier waves, higher ocean levels, meaner hurricanes, and more dramatic geologic events – volcanoes and earthquakes – that could lead to devastating tsunamis. A grim outlook, given that 60 percent of the world’s population lives within 30 miles of a coastline.

The Hawaiians have a saying ‘Mai juli’oe I kokua o ke kai!’ – never turn your back on the ocean. And after reading Susan Casey’s The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean, you can be sure that I won’t be turning my back to the ocean any time soon.

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