Science & Environment
1:54 pm
Mon June 23, 2014

New Ocean Current a Real-Life Scientific Mystery

The R/V Knorr at dock in Reykjavik, Iceland, before a 2011 expedition to the Denmark Strait.
The R/V Knorr at dock in Reykjavik, Iceland, before a 2011 expedition to the Denmark Strait.
Credit Ben Harden

It's not every day scientists discover a new ocean current.

Each year, we're surprised by announcements that scientists have discovered a new plant or animal species living seemingly under our noses in many cases.

Well, in 2004, two Icelandic researchers announced that they'd found what they thought was a whole new ocean current flowing south through the Denmark Strait, off the east coast of Greenland. They called it The North Icelandic Jet, and they hypothesized that it supplied half the deep, southerly-flowing water that counter-balances the Gulf Stream.

It was a shocking announcement, in some regards. Oceanographers had no reason to think they were missing an entire current. And this new current held the potential to significantly alter global climate models.

On the other hand, it's easy to understand why The North Icelandic Jet went undiscovered for so long. The ocean is vast; scientists can't possibly sample and observe every inch, or even mile, of it. And ocean currents - particularly those flowing far below the water's surface - are essentially invisible, detectable only if one puts the right suite of sensors in the right places.

Dr. Bob Pickart a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was immediately intrigued by the North Icelandic Jet. Was it real? Where did it come from? How much water did it carry?

In 2008, he set out to confirm the current’s existence. He succeeded.

Three years later, Pickart again led an expedition to the Denmark Strait, this time with the goal of pinning down the origin and true strength of the North Icelandic Jet. Author Dallas Murphy was aboard both the 2008 and 2011 cruises, and writes that the latter had a drama about it that is rare for oceanographic research cruises. This was a search, and by the end of the cruise, everyone would know if they'd found what they were looking for or not.

This real-life scientific mystery captured the media's attention. In addition to Dallas Murphy, two photographers and graduate student/videographer Ben Harden went along to document the adventure. Pickart says balancing the sometimes competing needs and goals of researchers and journalists added some complexity to the cruise, but has no regrets. The result is a stunning book, To the Denmark Strait: Oceanographers Search for a Mysterious Current, accompanied by a DVD of photos and videos.

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