Muckle Flugga

Lighthouse builder, David Stevenson, described how in 1842 a block weighing 6 tons was moved at 80 asl during the construction of the light on Muckle Flugga

Storm history

Current wave buoy data

Current significant wave height

Rogue wave theory

Records of extreme North Atlantic waves

1966. Italian steamship Michelangelo is hit by a 21-metre wave en route to New York. The water smashes through the bridge and into the first class compartments, killing two passengers and a crew member.

1995. The QE2 encounters a hurricane on a crossing to New York. She takes a 29-metre wave over her bow. "It looked as if we were going into the White Cliffs of Dover," says Captain Ronald Warwick.

1998. Schiehallion, a BP Amoco floating production platform, is struck by a wave which smashes the fo'c'sle 18m above the waterline.

2000. British cruise liner Oriana is hit by a 21-metre wave while answering a mayday call from a yacht 600 miles west of Cork, Ireland.

2000. A British oceanographic research vessel near Rockall, west of Scotland experienced the largest waves ever recorded by scientific instruments in the open ocean. Under severe gale force conditions with wind speeds averaging 21 ms−1 a shipborne wave recorder measured individual waves up to 29.1 m from crest to trough.

Records of extreme North Sea waves

1995, North Sea. Statoil floating rig Veslefrikk B is severely damaged by a rogue wave. One crew member describes a "wall of water" visible for several minutes before it strikes.

1995, North Sea. Hogmanay wave at Statoil's Draupner field measured at 26 m from trough to crest.

wind extremes

Wave environment

Yet in the Bound Skerry of Whalsey, the breakers have torn up masses of rock sometimes 8 tons in weight, and have heaped them together at a height of no less than 62 feet above high-water mark. Other blocks, ranging in bulk from 6 to 13 tons, have been actually been quarried out of their place in situ at levels from 70 to 74 feet above the sea.

Archibald Geikie (1887) describing Bound Skerry on Out Skerries (HU 702719)

Shetland experiences one of the highest wave energy environments in the world. The west coast is exposed to the full force of the Atlantic waves, with hundreds of kilometres of fetch, hurricane-force wind speeds and deep water close inshore allowing huge waves to arrive at the cliffs unbroken. The outer parts of the east coast must also experience some very large waves, as oil rigs in the northern North Sea has recorded some monsters over the last decade.

Dore Holm, January 1989. The upper line gives the spray zone; the lower the splash height. The summit of Dore Holm lies at 36 m asl. Image courtesy of the Tangwick Haa Museum

Large parts of the seabed around the Shetland Islands lie at depths of greater than 100m. To the west of Shetland the significant wave height is

The mean or average height of the highest one third of all waves in a swell train or in a wave generating region. It also approximates the value an experienced observer would report if visually estimating sea height

exceeded for 10% of the year is about 4m, reducing to about 3m to the east of Shetland (JNCC, 1997). Variations can be extreme and in 1996, 26% of all waves exceeded 4m, whilst in February 1997 89% of all waves exceeded 4m.



Annual maximum storm wave height in the North Atlantic






During storms much higher waves are common. To the east of Shetland waves reached 18.5m in 1969 at 560N, 40W (Burridge, 1973). To the west of Shetland storm waves reached 15.13m at 600N, 40W in January 1974 (Marex, 1975), 24.4m at 590N, 190W (Draper and Squire, 1967) and 15m in 1997 (Met Office, 1997). The occurrence of extreme waves is subject to a distinct November - March winter bias. The highest waves approach from between north and southwest.

There is an increasing amount of evidence to suggest an increase over recent decades of wave heights in the North Atlantic. The Waves and Storms in the North Atlantic (WASA) project used a combination of modelling and observational data to report increases in wave height of 2.5-7.5mma-1 over the period 1955-94 (Gunther et al, 1998). This is supported by the observational data of Gulev and Hasse (1999), who indicate a 1-3mma-1 increase in North Atlantic wave height in the last 30 years, possibly linked to intensification of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NOA). If this is the case then there appears to be little reason to suggest that the maximum heights achieved by extreme waves should not also be subject to a similar increase over time.