Wednesday, November 5, 2008

MYSTERY MASSIVE WAVES HIT MAINE COAST

- Megan Woolhouse Boston Globe Dockworker Marcy Ingall saw a giant wave in the distance last Tuesday afternoon and stopped in her tracks. It was an hour before low tide in Maine's Boothbay Harbor, yet without warning, the muddy harbor floor suddenly filled with rushing, swirling water. In 15 minutes, the water rose 12 feet, then receded. And then it happened again. It occurred three times, she said, each time ripping apart docks and splitting wooden pilings.

"It was bizarre," said Ingall, a lifelong resident of the area. "Everybody was like, 'Oh my God, is this the end?' " It was not the apocalypse, but it was a rare phenomenon, one that has baffled researchers. The National Weather Service said ocean levels rapidly rose in Boothbay, Southport, and Bristol in a matter of minutes around 3 p.m. on Oct. 28 to the surprise of ocean watchers. Exactly what caused the rogue waves remains unknown.

"The cause of it is a mystery," said National Weather Service meteorologist John Jensenius, who first reported the waves from a field office in Gray, Maine. "But it's not mysterious that it happened."

Specialists have posed a variety of possible explanations, saying the waves could have been caused by a powerful storm squall or the slumping of mountains of sediment from a steep canyon in the ocean - a sort of mini tsunami. The last time such rogue waves appeared in Maine was at Bass Harbor in 1926.

Jensenius said the occurrence is so unusual, that specialists don't have a name for the phenomenon. "That's part of our problem," he said.

A similar occurrence in Florida more than 15 years ago continues to baffle researchers. A series of 12- to 15-foot waves hit Daytona Beach on July 3, 1992, injuring more than 20 people and lifting and tossing dozens of cars.

Jeff List, an oceanographer at the US Geological Survey at Woods Hole said he and other researchers studied the occurrence, but no one has been able to pinpoint the cause. And he said similarly enormous waves appeared once on the Great Lakes. . .

Tsunami-like waves may not be as rare on the East Coast as most people think. Jensenius referenced a 2002 article in the International Journal of the Tsunami Society that called the threat of tsunami and tsunami-like waves generated in the Atlantic Ocean "very real despite a general impression to the contrary."

The article said such waves appear "in most cases to be the result of slumping or landsliding associated with earthquakes or with wave action associated with strong storms.". . .

According to the National Weather Service, no earthquakes or seismic activity were reported in the area when the Boothbay waves appeared. List noted that there was no seismic reading when the Daytona waves struck.

Elena Smith, a waitress and part-owner of McSeagull's restaurant overlooking the harbor, said the late-afternoon lunch crowd sat speechless as the waters rose and receded. She was stunned to see the normally safe and placid harbor suddenly run like rapids. Some residents reported seeing massive whirlpools of water that disappeared, leaving clam shells and seaweed in vortex patterns on the harbor floor. "It felt like somebody took the plug out somewhere" in the ocean, Smith said. "It felt like there must have been water missing in the ocean someplace."

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