OSU studying deadly sneaker waves: What causes them? Can they be predicted?

CORVALLIS, Ore. - A sneaker wave near Cape Blanco swept an Elmira man and his 3-year-old son out to sea last month.

And six years ago this week, high schools across the region turned purple in solidarity with South Eugene High School after a wave swept two students involved in the Mr. Axeman fundraiser to their deaths.

"Those are the kind of events that make us work harder," Professor Tuba Ozkan-Haller said. "Those are the kind of things that we lose sleep over."

Ozkan-Haller heads a team researchers at the Oregon State College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences in the middle of a 3-year long project.

The goal: Develop a sneaker wave early warning system.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Sneaker waves are larger, more powerful waves that appear amidst other small, less powerful waves.

"I think the reason sneaker waves are so dangerous is because they affect people who are not intending to go into the water to begin with," Ozkan-Haller said. "If your feet are swept out from under you, it pulls you back into the ocean really rapidly."

Sneaker waves strike without warning - hence the goal of the research at Oregon State.

Ozkan-Haller wants to give beach visitors a better chance of survival.

But first, they need to figure out how sneaker waves form.

"We think there are instances where a particular wave can catch up to the wave in front of it and essentially swallow it," Ozkan-Haller said.

Once researchers pinpoint a cause, they hope to devise a detailed early warning system using advanced technology.

"Could we have the kind of system where peoples cell phones would start beeping for instance, if they happen to be on a particular beach where we think sneaker wave activity is going to be prevalent?" Ozkan-Haller said.

For now, to be as safe as possible, Ozkan-Haller recommends studing the wave action when you venture close to the water.

A quick scan of the ocean is not enough.

Also: Make sure you have a potential escape route if a sneaker wave hits.

And never turn your back on the ocean.

"Its beauty draws us to it," Ozkan-Haller said, "but it is in no way a safe place to be."

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