Woods Hole researchers have marked and tracked strange rings breaking off the Gulf Stream, seeking their cause and dynamics. Read more about a variety of researches online at http://www.awkly.org. Occasionally a slow whirl will totally enclose a pocket of either colder or warmer water, like a huge life ring or standpipe revolving in the sea. Fish and other life will not leave one type of water for the other, but stay within their natural revolving swimming pool as long as it remains unbroken.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California has long taken the Pacific as its lake, logging hundreds of voyages of discovery. Its ships found great fractures New World of the Ocean in the eastern Pacific floor, and in the north and west sounded the Aleutian, Japan, and Philippine Trenches, and, deepest of all, the Mariana Trench.
Thor Heyerdahl drifted with Kon-Tiki west from South America on the South Equatorial Current, 4,000 miles to the Tuamotu Islands. Scripps scientists traced the equally massive Cromwell Current flowing eastbound beneath it, to wash cold water up against the volcanic Galapagos Islands and support the fantastic, isolated life forms that Charles Darwin saw there.
The north-flowing Peru, or Humboldt, Current and upwelling of deep, cold water along the western flank of South America feed one of the richest fisheries in the world. But the region is subject to vagaries of atmospheric and oceanic forces thousands of miles away. Occasionally a great mass of warm water invades from the north and blankets the upwelling. Then, in those dread times called El Nino (The Child), the Peruvian fish catch fails and the world faces a shortage of protein for animal feed—and, ultimately, human sustenance.
IN LONG, air-conditioned storage rooms at Scripps and Lamont stand rack after rack of cores—cylindrical tubes of mud and clay, sand and rock. These are taken from the seafloor by sharp-edged pipes dropped like bombs from oceanographic ships or brought up through Glomar Challenger’s drill pipe.
Maurice Ewing, in a day when a single core sample ten feet long was a treasure that might take a year to analyze and fully write up, confounded his colleagues by bringing home cores by the scores, then by the hundreds, every time his Vema and Robert D. Conrad docked from world cruises.
But the results in new knowledge were immediate and dramatic; every other oceanographic institution was soon to emulate him. Then came the years of the Deep Sea Drilling Project, and the cores proliferated even faster.
“A competent marine geologist can read down the length of a seabed core and tell you the state of the ocean surface over a million years, and from that the earth’s changing climate,” Lamont-Doherty’s Dr. James D. Hays told me a few years ago.