Circumnavigate This! Two Ocean Voyages: One by Land, One by Sea

All Life has its roots in the meeting of earth and water. –TH Watkins

The Blue Marble - NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image by Reto Stöckli

When you look at photos of the Earth from space, what do you see?

Does the ocean frame the land? Or does the land frame the ocean?

This question relates to an aspect of vision called figure-ground perception. You probably have experienced figure-ground questions in visual illusions like this image. As creatures of the land, we’re inclined to consider the land as the primary object, or figure, and the seas as background. The seas seem relatively flat and uneventful, although belying tremendous mountain ranges (more here) and teeming life hidden beneath the surface. Yet from space, Earth is a blue planet. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is clearly Ocean.”

What do you look at when you stand at the ocean’s edge?
If you’re like me, when you arrive at a coastline or beach, you’ll look first across the vast expanse of water towards the gentle curve of the horizon. Then your eyes will scan to the right or left and follow the meeting of land and water off into the distance.

The shape of that coastline — whether sandy beach, rocky shores, or precipitous bluffs — reveals a history of interaction between land and water, a relationship uninterrupted for eons. The coastline connects.

I’ve recently come across two ambitious journeys — one by land and one by sea — that are focusing attention on our world of water: how we are affected by the health of our oceans and the potential social and ecological impacts of sea level rise.

Atlantic Rising: A ferry in Guinea

One by land: Atlantic Rising

A trio of young explorers has taken the terrestrial route, basically driving their Land Rover around the Atlantic Ocean to engage students and bring attention to coastal areas, habitats, and livelihoods along the Atlantic that will be affected by sea level rise.

Atlantic Rising explores what will be lost around the Atlantic Ocean if sea levels rise by one metre. Our work in low-lying communities around the ocean rim is journalistic and educational. We are creating a network between 15,000 pupils; enabling them to build friendships, share experience and collaborate on climate change projects. We are also reporting the stories of people whose lives are already being affected by sea level change and providing a platform for marginalised voices.

Sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society, Atlantic Rising follows the Atlantic’s potential coastline across 31 countries. The journey so far has taken the trio from London to the West African coast. Along the way, they have encountered threatened wetlands, vulnerable villages, and inspirational conservation efforts. From Ghana, they crossed the Atlantic by container ship to Brazil and will now follow the one-metre contour to North America.

Launch of capsule for the Message in a BottleIn February, Atlantic Rising released Message in a Bottle, a satellite-tracked buoy that contains letters from students living in communities along the Atlantic. Students can follow the buoy’s path to learn about ocean currents, as well as engage with children from other participating schools.

Our project draws upon the historical connections between Atlantic countries to build new relationships around the Atlantic rim. It confronts pupils with the different global experiences of climate change and shows them the realities of sea level change in other Atlantic countries.

While sea level rise will ultimately vary significantly depending upon topography, wind and current, Atlantic Rising’s journey brilliantly highlights the fragility of ecosystems and the interconnected future of all people living by the sea.

The Around the Americas Route

One by sea: Around the Americas

In the tradition of Darwin’s HMS Beagle, Nansen and Amundsen’s Fram, and the HMS Challenger, the crew of the 64′ sailboat Ocean Watch has undertaken a modern voyage of discovery, called Around the Americas. A project of the Pacific Science Center and Sailors for the Sea, Around the Americas is circumnavigating the American continents “with the mission of inspiring, educating, and educating citizens of the Americas to protect our fragile oceans.”

A permanent crew of four highly-experienced “nautical geezers,” led by Captain Mark Schrader, and rotating scientists and educators staff the Ocean Watch on its 25,000 mile (40,200 km) voyage, which launched from Seattle in late May 2009. The crew’s logs make for fascinating reading.

From Baffin Island in the Arctic Sea to the Straits of Magellan near the tip of South America, the Ocean Watch is traversing every possible climatic region of the seas. The crew is conducting science experiments on subjects as varied as polar science,  jellyfish populations, ocean currents, pollution, and underwater ambient sound.

Schrader: “We hope the adventure of the trip will get people’s attention, but then we need to demonstrate with good science that we’re approaching a critical time for the health of our oceans.”

The Ocean Watch is now one of six small boats to make it through the Northwest Passage, west to east. Back in 1982, Captain Schrader circumnavigated the globe. At the time he wanted to sail the Northwest Passage.

But with the Arctic ice pack, it wasn’t possible at the time. In the past 100 years, only about 100 boats have made the passage, most of them Coast Guard ice breakers. Now, the conditions have changed dramatically. We need to make people aware of what’s happening in the oceans before we lose the Arctic ice pack all together, before conditions become irreversible.

Last month, the Ocean Watch was sailing off the shore of Chile between ports of call, when the earthquake hit and tremors raced undersea. The quake and tsunami savaged the land and triggered alerts thousands of miles away; the crew, of course, did not feel a thing. Please read the log entry about Chile.

Seascape, Straits of Magellan

This off-hand comment by one fisheries researcher captures in simple terms the need to understand better the oceans:  “It’s a big black box out there. Things have been wacky.”

Check out David Thoresen’s beautiful photographs on Flickr. And for the latest position of Ocean Watch, look here.

H/T to @eclecticechoes, @geographile for “Mountains in the Sea” link

Credits: “Blue Marble,” NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Atlantic Rising photos, courtesy of Atlantic Rising; Seascape, courtesy of Around the Americas, ©David Thoresen

Loosely Knit : 2 March, 2010

1. photo of Ilulissat Icebergs, Disko Bay, Greenland (Flickr/CC photo by kaet44)

Every year, 20 billion tonnes of icebergs calve off the Jakobshavn Isbræ glacier and pass through the Ilulissat Icefjord.

2. Understanding deep ocean circulation and climate modeling

If you follow the latitude lines from much of Europe westward across the Atlantic, you tend to run into Canada. Even if you go to the southern tip of Spain, you’re not much further south than the Virginias. Canada, of course, has a reputation for being rather frozen and inhospitable, while Europe goes to pieces if it snows for more than an hour or two. The difference is mainly due to ocean currents.

At the north edge of the Atlantic Ocean, warm surface water cools off and sinks, drawing in more warm surface water from the south, generating a warm surface current along Europe’s Atlantic coast. Portions of this current comes in from the tropics near Africa and South America, and more is drawn in from the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In addition to making Europe a pleasant place to live, this current also provides the main source of ocean mixing—that is, these currents act to cool the ocean surface temperatures and heat the deep ocean.

More on thermohaline circulation, also known as the “ocean conveyor belt.”

See also:Freak Current Takes Gulf Stream to Greenland

Artic Tern Migration, map courtesy of Carsten Egevang

3. World’s Longest Migration Found–2X Longer Than Thought

Miniature new transmitters recently revealed that the 4-ounce (113-gram) [arctic tern] follows zigzagging routes between Greenland and Antarctica each year. In the process, the arctic tern racks up about 44,000 frequent flier miles (71,000 kilometers)—edging out its archrival, the sooty shearwater, by roughly 4,000 miles (6,440 kilometers).
Photo: Carsten Egevang/ARC-PIC.COM
Since the birds often live 30 years or more, the researchers estimate that, over its lifetime, an arctic tern migrates about 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers)—equal to three trips to the moon and back.

See also: The Arctic Tern Migration Project

Bird of the Sun, a beautiful photographic tribute to the arctic tern by Carsten Egevang

Map of global shipping routes by Bernd Blasius

4. A Year of Global Shipping Routes Mapped by GPS

Scientists have come up with the first comprehensive map of global shipping routes based on actual itineraries. The team pieced together a year’s worth of travel itineraries from 16,693 cargo ships using data from LLoyd’s Register Fairplay and the Automatic Identification System, which tracks vessels using a VHF receiver and GPS.

A few hot spots logged the majority of journeys. The busiest port was the Panama Canal, followed by the Suez Canal and Shanghai.

5. The Mariana Trench to scale

Click on the link for an amazing graphic of the deepest point in the ocean.

via kottke:  “representation of how deep the Mariana Trench is. Turns out it’s really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really deep.”