A new technology could give sailors a few minutes of warning before a freak wave rears up and delivers a swamping — a heads-up that could save lives. “There are many losses of ships throughout the world because of rogue waves,” Themistoklis Sapsis, assistant professor of mechanical and ocean engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells Inverse in an email. “But most importantly there are many accidents in offshore platforms.”

Sapsis and former postdoctoral student Will Cousins published their findings Thursday in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics. They’ve developed a new algorithm that does a better job predicting when a dangerous wave is about to rise up out of the sea, seemingly out of nowhere.

These surprise waves have been a problem on the ocean for as long as humans have been going to sea. Waves are part of a naturally chaotic system. Rare conditions, like freak weather events, can cause a rogue wave to suddenly appear, posing a serious risk to any nearby infrastructure.

Previous attempts to predict them have involved trying to predict every single wave in the area. This makes it possible to model which waves are likely to go rogue, but it takes a great deal of computational power. Sapsis and Cousins’s model is different because it considers a group of waves together and looks at the conditions that might make a rogue wave likely within a given group. As a result, it’s feasible that an individual ship or platform could have a high-resolution radar or LIDAR scanner on board that continuously scans the ocean and gives a warning if a freak wave is about to form.

This sort of high-resolution scanner is being developed, although not by Sapsis and his research group. “It is doable but it needs some time to mature enough in order to become available on a large scale,” he says.

The technology would allow operators of ships and ocean platforms to shut down key functions and to protect themselves from an approaching wave, says Sapsis. Another application could be giving warning to naval aircraft carriers when a wave might pose a risk to planes during takeoffs and landings.

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