Scientists Map Swirling Ocean Eddies for Clues to Climate Change

Can we read the future in the ocean’s movements?
Guille Avalos/Flickr

Guille Avalos/Flickr

In January 2010, a crew of scientists voyaged by ship from the southern tip of Chile into the frigid Antarctic to search for clues to one of the great unknowns of climate change. They planned to crisscross a remote patch of sea near the spot where, a year earlier, another crew had injected a tankful of an inert chemical one mile below the surface. The new crew had seven weeks of funding and good weather to sample the seawater throughout the region and discover where the chemical went.

By mapping its spread over the course of the year, the scientists hoped to disentangle the forces that drive the circulation of the Southern Ocean — one of the most important, but least understood, regulators of Earth’s climate.

But four days from port, the ship’s captain died in the night. “There was a lot of confusion,” said Angel Ruiz-Angulo, a scientist on board. “Eventually, they said he died of heart failure.” Out of helicopter range, the crew had no choice but to put the captain’s body in a refrigerator designed for seawater samples and set course through gale-force winds for Punta Arenas, Chile, with the first mate at the helm. On shore, a short service was held, and the ship was examined. Then the scientists quickly returned to sea.

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