Physicist works toward forecasting rogue waves along Vancouver Island’s west coast

Crashing waves are part of the thrill of a trip to the beach, but Johannes Gemmrich says most people are unaware of the life-threatening dangers posed by sudden wave events. 

Gemmrich, a University of Victoria physicist, has partnered with two graduate students to develop a real-time public monitoring and forecasting system for rogue waves, which are usually more than twice the size of their surrounding waves, and typically surface every couple of days. 

“Many of [the waves] are small,” said Gemmrich.

But some can reach massive heights when they overlap with each other to create larger waves or build up wavelength energy from one wave to the next.

Gemmrich said “people can get washed off fairly safe locations,” and these waves are also known to suddenly damage boats and off-shore structures.  

UVic graduate students Leah Cicon, left, and Carmen Holmes-Smith, right, work on a camera installation used to collect wave data. (Submitted by Johannes Gemmrich)

Gemmrich said camera systems have been in place in the Long Beach Unit of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve since April 2019, while two others were placed at Cox Bay and Chesterman Beach in Tofino two weeks ago. Data is also being collected from buoys floating further out in the ocean.

The monitoring systems are collecting data on how frequently the waves occur and how big they are, with the goal of having a warning system in place some time next year. 

‘I thought I was dead,’ says rogue wave survivor

Ucluelet resident Kyla Macgregor says creating a system to forecast massive wave events is a huge development. 

“Especially because there are lots of [tourists] who come out here and have never been around the ocean,” she said. 

Macgregor says she hasn’t visited the ocean since September, when she, her friend, and her dog survived a terrifying rogue wave that suddenly swept them from a high cliff near the Wild Pacific Trail.

Ucluelet resident Kyla Macgregor says she’s lucky to be alive, after a massive and unexpected wave swept her from a high cliff along the shoreline near Ucluelet in September. (Facebook/Kyla Macgregor)

“I’d gone to that lookout almost every day for two years,” said Macgregor, who had believed the cliff’s height made it safe from any wave danger. 

But when the wave hit, she said it picked her up and tossed her against a rock, where she banged her head. 

“I thought I was dead,” she recalled. Macgregor lost consciousness and awoke in a tide pool to find her friend face-down and unconscious in the water. 

Macgregor was hospitalized locally, while her friend was airlifted to Victoria, and survived. 

Parks Canada using real-time data for public safety

Gemmrich said building public awareness of these kinds of dangers is very important.

His project will run for another year and a half, using about $600,000 granted by the federal government under the Search and Rescue New Initiatives Fund.

Parks Canada said in a statement that the project’s real-time data is “enhancing Parks Canada’s ability to assess wave hazard ratings and inform visitors and surrounding communities of risk levels,” as part of its adverse weather and storm monitoring program.

“Visitor safety is of utmost importance,” Parks Canada said. Wave hazard forecasts are posted both online and on public messaging boards in the parks.

Information will also be made available by the CoastSmart Initiative, a pilot project between the federal government and the districts of Tofino and Ucluelet, later in the year.

In the meantime, Gemmrich says it’s important for beach-goers to remember that “waves fluctuate and you should expect extreme run-ups at any time.”

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