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Sept. 8, 2010 — With the help of meteorologists, giant, ship-sinking waves could be found and tracked in the open ocean, saving the lives of sailors manning those ships.
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updated 9/8/2010 12:51:14 PM ET 2010-09-08T16:51:14

Giant rogue waves like the kind popularized in the George Clooney movie The Perfect Storm could be predictable thanks to new research on light in fiber optic cables.

Reporting in the journal Nature Physics, an international collaboration of scientists have created the first huge, solitary wave made from lots of little waves that can maintain its size and speed over long distances in the lab.

While sailors might call these waves scary, scientists have named them Peregrine solitons. With the help of meteorologists, giant, ship-sinking waves could be found and tracked in the open ocean, sparing ocean-going vessels and their crew.

"This is an especially important result for understanding how high-intensity rogue waves may form in the very noisy and imperfect environment of the open ocean," said Nail Akhmediev, one of the study's co-authors and a scientist at the Australian National University.

A soliton is basically a fancy word for a wave that doesn't break or curl, and is the same size and speed over a long distance. In the ocean, there are many, many solitons. If you are on a boat riding waves up and down, you are going up and down solitons.

A Peregrine soliton, named after the British mathematician who first theorized their existence, Howell Peregrine, is much rarer. A Peregrine soliton happens when many solitons come together and form one wave that is larger and faster than any individual wave.

Sailors have reported these waves for many years. In 1978 the MS Munchen sank from a suspected rogue wave. More recently the Aleutian Ballad, a ship on Deadliest Catch, was hit by a rogue wave. While the Ballad survived, most ships hit by rogue waves sink without a trace, which has made scientists somewhat skeptical about such occurrences.

Mathematically, scientists can create rogue waves, but until now they were unable to actually produce one. The physics just seemed too unlikely in the real world. "It is as if a roomful of people whispering produced the sound of an explosion," said Alex Kasman, a soliton scientist at the College of Charleston who wasn't involved in the Nature Physics study.

To create a Peregrine soliton, scientists sent little light waves, called breathers, down fiber optic wires. Some waves were long and slow, while others were fast and short. While both kinds of waves created an optical Peregrine soliton, the waves that were the most distinct in both time and space created giant light waves more easily.

"This new paper would seem to show that this particular type of soliton is not only a theoretical possibility, but is actually something that can be found in the real world," said Kasman.

Dangerous rogue waves are usually reported during storms that create short, strong waves. Since short, compact light waves lead to Peregrine solitons most readily, this should explain why rogue waves are reported most often during storms.

The international group of scientists now plans to work with meteorologists to help predict where rogue waves are most likely to occur and alert ship captains to sheet clear of certain areas or certain storms.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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