This blog provides commentary on interesting geological events occurring around the world in the context of my own work. This work is, broadly, geological fluid dynamics. The events that I highlight here are those that resonate with my professional life and ideas, and my goal is to interpret them in the context of ideas I've developed in my research. The blog does not represent any particular research agenda. It is written on a personal basis and does not seek to represent the University of Illinois, where I am a professor of geology and physics. Enjoy Geology in Motion! I would be glad to be alerted to geologic events of interest to post here! I hope that this blog can provide current event materials that will make geology come alive.

Banner image is by Ludie Cochrane..

Susan Kieffer can be contacted at s1kieffer at gmail.com

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rogue wave damages cruise ship

Two days ago (12/07/2010) a cruise ship lost an engine after encountering "monster waves" near the South Shetland Islands north of the Antarctic peninsula. Two videos of the waves are here and here. The ship, The Clelia II, a 5-deck ship, is apparently safe and heading to Ushuia (Argentina), accompanied by an Argentinian naval vessel.  It departed Ushuia for the Antarctic on November 30 and was returning to port yesterday.  The ship is being reported as operated by Polar Cruises based in Bend, Oregon, but Polar Cruises has put out a press release that it neither owns nor operates the ship. It appears that the operator is Travel Dynamics International of New York.. The media is reporting that the ship is carrying 100 passengers and 60 crew members, but several pieces of information in the news conflict with more reliable sources.  According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, there were 88 passengers and 77 crew.  All of the passengers are from the US. This same ship had an accident Christmas 2009 when a stronger-than-anticipated current pushed it onto rocks at Petermann Island in the Antarctica Peninsula. The starboard propeller struck some rocks, resulting in the shutdown of the starboard engine and loss of electrical power aboard the ship. Damage was significant enough that expeditions were cancelled through mid-January, 2010.

SS Edmund Fitzgerald May, 1975
As can be seen on the video there were heavy seas, and reportedly 55 mph winds northeast of the Shetland Islands. Two ingredients contribute to the creation of rogue waves: strong winds and fast currents. Rogue waves are common in this area of the world because winds have a long interrupted stretch of ocean to blow on the sea surface and build up the waves. For centuries mariners told tales of monster waves up to 100 feet in height.  Mathematical probability theory, however, based on a Rayleigh distribution of wave heights led to conclusions that these waves were unlikely.  A concerted effort to document the waves, including satellite measurements and pressure records from buoys, has now shown that waves exceeding 100 feet are much more common than expected.

Rogue waves also occur on the Great Lakes, and are believed to have cause the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in November, 1975. At the time, it was the largest ship (a freighter) on the Great Lakes. The ship sank so quickly that no distress signals were received. When it was located on the bottom later that month, it was found to have broken in two. One theory is that it was hit by the "Three Sisters", a name for the phenomenon that these rogue waves occur in sets (there is a hint of that in the videos above of the recent episode in the Antarctic).  "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was a 1976 hit song by Gordon Lightfoot.


Earl said...

The islands referred to are the Falkland Islands

Susan W. Kieffer said...

Thank you for your interest, Earl. I can't find mention of the Falkland Islands in any of the news media; they do say that it's the Shetland Islands. And, from what I can see from a quick look at the geography, they're not the same. The (South) Shetland Islands are 120 km north of the Antarctic Peninsula and have an area of 3,687 sq. km. The Falklands are 460 km from the coast of South America and have an area of 12,173 sq. km. I will keep an eye out for further news, or please post again if this still needs to be corrected.

Earl said...

I stand corrected. South Shetland Islands makes sense. My first post to an academic blog and I have learned something new. Actually several things, a new place on the planet, Google Earth does not know every place, and to research more before correcting the professor.

Susan W. Kieffer said...

I learned something too, and have amended the report to say "South" Shetland Islands! I had wondered about that too because of the more famous Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland.