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Schmich: Sounding the alarm on renegade waves

Roguish name may oversell their threat, but this week's monster swells a rare midsummer occurrence

Mary Schmich

July 24, 2013

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The rogue waves were coming.

Ten feet. Twelve feet. Higher.

It was all over the news. The rogue waves could soon be pounding into Chicago like a posse of bandits, a band of terrorists, the horsemen of the apocalypse.

An alert had been issued from 9 a.m. Tuesday through Wednesday morning.

Stay off the breakwalls. Stay out of the water.

Right.

The surest way to get Chicago people to the lakeshore, short of cheap beer and fireworks, is to promise them something as exciting as rogue waves, which is why I grabbed a sun hat Tuesday afternoon and headed to the beach.

Before I went, I did what any modern person does in anticipation of disaster. I consulted Google.

What exactly was a rogue wave anyway?

I'd seen big waves in Chicago. A few summers back, as I was biking, a huge swell of water crashed into the lakefront and a towering spray swept me off my bike and almost swallowed the bike whole.

But rogue waves? They sounded especially ominous.

"Rogue, freak, or killer waves have been part of marine folklore for centuries," said the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "but have only been accepted as a real phenomenon by scientists over the past few decades."

Rogue waves, other sites reported, are also known as extreme waves, abnormal waves and monster waves.

Armed with that vast vocabulary, I went in search of terror.

The 31st Street beach on Chicago's South Side is one of the city's prettiest. The bike path is wide and smooth. The skyline rises in the near distance. In summer, the prairie grasses and wildflowers shimmer while the masts of white boats clang in the harbor. Most uplifting of all, parking is just a dollar an hour.

I cared about none of this. All I wanted were rogue waves.

There were, in fact, some waves, more than usual in the windy day, little white-topped swells that the kids splashed in.

But rogue? These waves were about as roguish as Justin Bieber.

While I waited for the rogue waves to arrive, I called Chicago's climate master for further enlightenment.

"I hope you haven't been misled into thinking you're going to see one," WGN's Tom Skilling said. "I'm a little surprised as much has been made of this as has."

He suspected that the description "rogue waves" was intended to push bikers, joggers and curiosity seekers off the shoreline and away from some dangerous big waves, though not necessarily rogue ones.

The rogue wave, he explained, isn't just a giant wave. It's a wave that is far bigger than all the waves around it.

Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians, if I understood correctly.

"The rogue wave is a freak," he said. "It's often the marriage, the intersection, of two waves that slam into each other. Rogue waves also form where you've got a wave intersecting a current flowing opposite it."

Such a wave, he went on, can happen in oceans or in lakes. There's a theory that a rogue wave caused the legendary 1975 sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior.

Rogue or not, the waves were definitely building in Lake Michigan on Tuesday, and Skilling noted that the winds — which result in waves — were also building, in a way unusual for July.

Dramatic weather, he explained, is often caused by the clash of cold Arctic air and the warmer air in the lower 48. But in summer, when Arctic regions warm up, such clashes of air are rare.

"This is not the time of year when you get highly organized winds," he said.

(I had a vision of highly organized winds arranging their spice drawers alphabetically. Or color-coding their perfectly folded underwear. But back to rogue waves.)

"It is interesting that we, even for a brief period, have winds that are as well-organized as they will be later today and into tonight," he said.

So, who knew? A rogue wave might turn up.

"If you see one," he said, "let me know!"

In the late afternoon, I drove north to the Foster Avenue beach, still chasing rogue waves. The waves were bigger there, verging on wild, though none of them was freakishly tall and alone.

Daredevils continued to bike and jog at the water's edge, but many people just stood and watched, struck still by the force and the mystery of the wind on the water.

Whatever you call it.

mschmich@tribune.com