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Waves taller than a 10-floor building

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Ninety foot waves that would snap a ship in two and dwarf a 10-floor building rose from the stormy waters of the Gulf of Mexico in 2004 during Hurricane Ivan, according to new research.

These waves are thought to be the tallest and most intense waves ever measured. They disintegrated into the rough Gulf of Mexico before ever reaching land.

"We measured a 91-footer," said Science author William Teague from the Naval Research Laboratory in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi.

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Ninety one feet measures the distance from the top or "crest" of the wave to the wave's bottom or "trough." Teague said the team's wave-measuring tools probably missed some even bigger waves, waves as tall as 40 meters or 132 feet.

Little is known about the biggest ocean waves, and this research highlights a way to capture information without putting people or expensive measurement tools at great risk.

In September of 2004, Hurricane Ivan ripped through the island of Grenada, (which is just off the northeast tip of South America) before tearing through the Caribbean Sea and causing death and destruction on Jamaica, Grand Cayman and other islands. Next, Ivan plowed through the Gulf of Mexico and smashed into the United States on 15 September 2004.

The researchers collected information on Ivan's waves as the storm moved through the Gulf of Mexico, about 75 miles south of Gulfport, Mississippi and 50 miles east of the "boot" of Louisiana.

Wave heights were calculated using water pressure data collected as the storm passed over sensors protected within flying-saucer-shaped contraptions that sit on the ocean floor at depths of 60 and 90 meters.

Click here for a high resolution photograph.

The scientists call these big concrete-bottomed saucers "barnys" because they are shaped like barnacles, the small, hard shelled sea animals that attached themselves to rocks, boat bottoms or other hard surfaces.

The researchers suspect the sensors missed the storm's largest waves. The wave and tide sensors do not collect information all the time in order to extend the lives of their batteries.

Most if not all of the past attempts to measure the biggest ocean waves have failed. For example, scientists who attach wave-measuring instruments to oil-drilling platforms in the ocean are often disappointed to find the instruments snap off before the peak of the storm.

This research appears in the 05 August, 2005 issue of the journal Science.