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High freak waves were not a ‘mini-tsunami’

Video by Michael Rizzo

A series of freak waves, which to the untrained eye looked like a mini-tsunami, had people scampering from their sun beds and rushing for cover in Sliema on Tuesday evening.

Two-storey high waves hit the area of the Sliema pitch at two-minute intervals at about 6 p.m., sweeping away the waterpolo club’s outdoor furniture. The phenomenon lasted for about two hours and was reported in Buġibba, Xemxija, Golden Bay and Marsascala.

“These freak waves are normally caused by atmospheric pressure. It’s similar to having a hammer pounding on the surface of the sea. The closer the waves get to land the bigger they become,” said Aldo Drago, Professor at the International Ocean Institute at the University of Malta.

“It may look like a very small tsunami but of course it has nothing to do with it,” he said, explaining that the waves can at times even reach a height of eight metres.

He assuaged fears that this might be caused by global warming and pointed out that these waves – technically known as seiche – are not an uncommon occurrence. “There is certainly no need to be alarmed. This is a very common phenomenon here – so much so that we even have a word for it in Maltese: milgħuba,” he said.

This is not the first time that Sliema in particular has been hit by this wave phenomenon: last year similar waves severely damaged the floating pool’s waterpolo pitch. “This year we secured the pool in a different way, so the damage was not as extensive as last year’s,” said Michael Gatt, President of the Sliema waterpolo club, estimating some €5,000 damages this time round.

The freak waves crashing onto the Sliema seafront on Tuesday. Photo: Daniela SaidThe freak waves crashing onto the Sliema seafront on Tuesday. Photo: Daniela Said

He was mostly concerned about the safety of the people on the beach and within minutes of the first wave, the club was evacuated. “With waves some three metres high or even more, if someone is standing in the wrong place it can be fatal,” he said.

The phenomenon comes without warming and is not linked to seismic movements. It cannot even be forecasted by the meteorological office.

“On Tuesday we did record a moderate swell, which means that although it’s not windy, the waves can go up to two metres,” said weather forecaster, John Darmanin.

No irregular situation was recorded and it is impossible to tell if it can happen again: “No one can forecast a freak wave,” said Mr Darmanin.

Some people on timesofmalta.com commented that the waves could be caused by the Virtu Ferries catamaran and pointed out that on Sundays, when the catamaran reaches the breakwater, high waves hit the Sliema front. However a spokesman for Virtu Ferries said that on Tuesday the catamaran was in Pozzallo all day and nowhere near Sliema. “The area is prone to freak waves. Without denying that our vessel could cause some waves, the area is full of big ships and pleasure boats,” said the spokesman.

Despite the freak waves people were back on their sun beds at the Sliema pitch early yesterday morning: even the fear of a “mini-tsunami” can’t scare people enough to stop them enjoying their summer.

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