On the morning of February 4, 2013, a cold front moved across the North Atlantic between Iceland and the United Kingdom. The winds kicked up over 50 miles per hour, powering a set of 10 to 15 waves with an average height of 62.3 feet. At the time, weather buoys in the region measured the wave height, and recently the World Meteorological Society certified these massive walls of water as the tallest buoy-measured waves, reports Laura Geggel at LiveScience.
“This is the first time we have ever measured a wave of 19 meters [62.3 feet]. It is a remarkable record,” WMO assistant secretary-general Wenjian Zhang says in a press release. “It highlights the importance of meteorological and ocean observations and forecasts to ensure the safety of the global maritime industry and to protect the lives of crew and passengers on busy shipping lanes.”
The big wave crushes the previous record for highest buoy-recorded wave set in 2007, a 59.96-foot monster also in the North Atlantic. The WMO explains that this area of the ocean tends to produce the world’s biggest waves. That’s because, during winter time wind circulation and atmospheric pressure produce storms in the area known as “weather bombs,” or explosive cyclogenesis. These storms can be so strong that they produce faint seismic waves that can be measured as far away as Japan.
The WMO says these weather systems can produce massive waves, which are found in an area stretching from Canada’s Grand Banks and Newfoundland to the south of Iceland and up to the UK. In 2006, a team of oceanographers recorded the tallest wave ever seen from a ship—a 95-foot-tall monster—in this swath of ocean in an area known as Rockall Trough.
But that measurement was the result of storm-chasing and a little luck. Zhang says in his statement that the 2013 measurement underscores the importance of having long-term ocean monitoring systems in place like the UK Meteorological Office's marine automatic weather stations, which detected the waves. “We need high quality and extensive ocean records to help in our understanding of weather/ocean interactions,” he says. “Despite the huge strides in satellite technology, the sustained observations and data records from moored and drifting buoys and ships still play a major role in this respect.”
Doyle Rice at USA Today points out that it’s likely there have been bigger unmeasured waves, and that rogue waves up to nearly 100 feet have been reported. Satellite imaging has also shown the existence of some of these rogue waves, but they are not verifiable and don’t qualify for record contention. “There have been many less reliable estimates of rogue waves from other platforms, and from satellite radar,” Val Swail, a wind and wave researcher from Environment Canada, tells Rice. “These are generally unverifiable, since there is no ground truth for the satellite, and the others tend to be from pitching and rolling platforms such as ships.”