Ocean No. 5

In case you’ve missed it, National Geographic has decided to officially recognize the ocean immediately around Antartica as the Southern Ocean. It therefore becomes the fifth official “ocean”–as distinct from seas like the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, Caribbean Sea, and the South China Sea and countless bays, coves, and inlets. If you’ve forgotten this lesson from your geography class, the other official oceans are the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Arctic Ocean.

The National Geographic decision is a kind of belated codification of the status of the Southern Ocean, which many countries and geographers have recognized for a while. They point out that the Southern Ocean is just different in feel, in composition, in appearance, and in danger than other oceans. The Southern Ocean is defined by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which is a kind of moving water barrier that is colder, and less salty, than the surrounding water in other oceans.

One article describes the Southern Ocean in a way that makes it sound like an interesting place that would be well worth visiting:

“The Southern Ocean is unlike anywhere else on Earth. ‘Anyone who has been there will struggle to explain what’s so mesmerizing about it,’ says Seth Sykora-Bodie, a marine scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a National Geographic Explorer.  ‘But they’ll all agree that the glaciers are bluer, the air colder, the mountains more intimidating, and the landscapes more captivating than anywhere else you can go.’

“The Southern Ocean is a violent place. It’s where many of the massive swells that run into Teahupoo and Cloudbreak are born. In 2017, a wave of nearly unheard of proportions was measured there. Not only does it look different, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is extraordinarily important to the Earth’s climate. It transports more water than any other current in any other ocean, sucking in water from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. It’s a driving force behind the global circulation system called the conveyor belt, which moves warm waters all over the planet.”

(In case you’re interested and don’t want to click on the link above, the wave that is mentioned in the above snip was 64 feet tall–in the open ocean. 64 feet!)

It’s interesting to look at that map of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean at the top of this post. Most world maps don’t show Antarctica in its full glory, and show only a bit of it at the bottom of the map. Looking at it makes me interested in potentially seeing it one of these days–as long as I have assurance that we don’t encounter any 64-foot waves.

Seagull Sound

I was up early this morning, trying to adapt to the Eastern-to-Pacific time zone change. It was black outside as I worked to get my mobile devices connected so I could catch up on the Eastern time zone world.

As the pre-dawn darkness turned to a dim and overcast gray, I heard the cry of a seagull. It’s a unique combination of high-pitched squeal and squawk that immediately tells you that you are very near a large body of water — in this case, English Bay, Burrard Inlet, and the Straits of Georgia, the principal bodies of water on which Vancouver sits. That seagull sound is one of those sounds that is so closely identified with a location that, when you hear it, you can almost smell the sharp tang of salt water and the wafting odor of seaweed decaying on shoreline rocks.

For this landlocked Midwesterner, who doesn’t have to deal with the less pleasant aspects of oceanic birds, the sound of a seagull is a welcome, pleasing sound. I sat for a while at the predawn minutes ticked by, listening to the seagull cries and the sound of the water slapping against the dock below and watching the birds wheel over the bay.

Your Mom and Grandmother Were Right About There Being More Fish In The Sea

When you first had your heart broken, chances are your mother and your grandmother told you to forget about the person who jilted you and added: “There are many fish in the sea.” It turns out that they were more right than they knew — about fish, at least.

A recent Australian study determined that the oceans are filled with many more fish than scientists suspected. In fact, the study concludes that the global biomass of fish is 30 times higher than was previously thought.

Why the incredible undercount of fish? Because most of the world’s biomass of fish falls in the category of mesopelagic fish, which live in the dark depths of the ocean at levels 200 to 1000 meters below the surface. The populations of those fish have been underestimated because the fish have remarkable sensorial capabilities and are incredibly adept at avoiding detection and capture by fishing nets. Their true number was revealed only when acoustic detection devices were used.

Mesopelagic fish are otherworldly looking, with their jutting jaws and special sensory devices, but they play an important role in the oceanic ecosystems. They rise at night to feed, then sink back to the depths to take their craps — a process which transfers carbon from the ocean’s surface to its deepest depths. The decarbonization of the surface helps to keep the oceans healthy.

Curious, isn’t it — after millennia of fishing and sailing the oceans, and hundreds of years of careful scientific study, humans still know so little about the oceans and their inhabitants that we underestimated the fish population by a factor of 30. What else don’t we know about the waters that cover most of the Earth’s surface?

A Bomber In The Briny Deep

Who knows what treasures lie deep beneath the ocean waves?  It seems like every week or so salvage operations are hauling up another interesting relics from the past.

The latest is a German bomber that was shot down during the heaviest days of the Battle of Britain, when waves of Nazi planes crossed the English Channel in hopes of bombing the British into submission.  They failed, and in the process enormous numbers of Nazi planes were shot down.

This particular plane, a Dornier Do-17, was shot down over the English Channel.  Rather than falling apart on impact with the water, it came to rest, largely intact, on a chalk bed, 50 feet under the Channel’s surface.  Divers saw it in 2008, and planning to raise the wreck and rebuild the bomber have been underway since then.  The salvage operation is reported to be a success, with most of the aircraft corroded but recognizable.  Experts estimate it will take two years to reconstruct the aircraft so that it can be displayed.

Approximately 71 percent of the Earth’s surface lies under the ocean waves.  What other prizes — Roman triremes, Phoenicians ships, schooners, warships, barges, ocean liners, flooded cities, and fallen aircraft — lie on the ocean floor, waiting to be discovered and yield their secrets about the past?

 

Supergiants Of The Briny Deep

It’s hard to believe, but a lot of our world remains unexplored.  The oceans which cover most of the Earth’s surface, for example, remain fertile ground for scientific examination.

At various locations in the Earth’s oceans are superdeep trenches that plunge downward for miles.  For years scientists believed that the super-dark, super-cold trenches must be devoid of life, because no known life form could stand the immense pressures exerted by the miles of water overhead.  Now scientists are learning that they were wrong.  The trenches have lots of life — and it is pretty weird.

Recently, a team exploring the Kermadec trench off the coast of New Zealand found supergiant amphipods.  These crustaceans normally are about an inch long; the amphipods of the trench are more than 10 times larger.  They make “jumbo shrimp” look pretty, well, shrimpy.

These supergiant amphipods join other creatures that are known to live in the trenches.  They all show that life is hardy, tough, and will usually find a way to survive in even the most inhospitable habitats.

Discoveries like this should make us all curious about the possibilities of finding life on other planets and moons.  If amphipods can thrive in absolutely dark, intensely cold environments at pressures that would immediately crush a normal creature like an eggshell, why couldn’t creatures somehow find a way to survive in, say, the hot, heavy atmosphere of Venus or on one of Jupiter’s moons?