Thar She Blows: View from the Arctic

by Bill Chameides | August 5th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Travels with TheGreenGrok — The latest dispatch in a series on interesting places my deanly duties are whisking me off to.

Sensory “underload” on the ocean.

For the past two days I and my compatriots aboard the Clelia II have been steaming northward just east of the Labrador coast. We’re making our way to the Inuit village of Pangnirtung on Baffin Island, with stops at Red Bay, Hebron and Monumental Island, before turning east across the Atlantic Ocean to Greenland.

After my recent trips to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with its breathtaking mountain spires and to the Gulf Coast with its teeming arrays of birds and wetlands, the ocean view aboard the Clelia II has been remarkably unremarkable water, waves, and sky, mostly gray, hour after hour.

Scientists often refer to much of the world’s oceans as a desert — and a recent study suggests those deserts are becoming more desert-like. (See yesterday’s post.) The notion of an “ocean desert” may seem to be an oxymoron, but consider this: even though 70 percent of our globe is covered by ocean and only 30 percent by land, and even though the oceans have an average depth of four kilometers (or about three and half miles), there’s more than 100 times more mass of living stuff on the continents than in the oceans [pdf]. And so when it comes to the sheer abundance of life, the deep oceans are not unlike arid deserts when compared to the relative lushness of a forest or prairie.

Staring out at the unrelenting starkness of the deep blue landscape these past two days, I’ve found the desert analogy easy to understand, and the waters here are not even considered to be a “desert.” On the contrary, they are among the more productive regions of the world’s ocean.

It is said that the lack of stimulation can heighten the senses. And that must certainly be the case because aboard the Clelia II we have become attuned to any change, however slight, on the horizon. A puffin or a gannet flying by is an occasion for great activity, a race to the starboard or port, binoculars in hand and cameras at the ready.

For a while, I became fascinated by the flotsam. I discovered that in some parts of the Strait of Belle Isle, one is more likely to see a bit of plastic floating by than a bird flying by. The record: at one point I counted three pieces of plastic — ironically one red, one white, and one blue — in the course of about five minutes.

But then yesterday afternoon, I was awakened from my plastic-flotsam-counting doldrums by the cry: “Whales at 11 o’clock and closing!” Racing to the bow, I could barely make out the faintly visible, gray, misty columns bursting upward from the surface on the horizon. Those spouts came closer and closer and then there they were — three huge fin whales slowly crossing our bow, only about 200–300 feet away. Each time they surfaced, we’d see a burst of water from their blow hole, then a back, followed by a fin, and then just a splash, as the leviathans submerged for another dive. It was, well, remarkable. (For last month’s musings on whales, see my post on Moby Dick.)

Just goes to show that simple numbers and abundances don’t tell the whole story. And while the amount of biomass in the ocean may be relatively small, the work that that ocean biomass does for the globe, for example by cycling carbon and pumping carbon dioxide into the deep ocean, is critical — a whole lot more important than serving as a huge receptacle for our discarded plastic.

Uh oh, gotta go. Iceberg at one o’clock.

filed under: Arctic, faculty, oceans, pollution, travel
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1 Comment

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  1. Ken Towe
    Aug 7, 2010

    As I tried to explain earlier (see comment at:, the impact of pumping CO2 into the deep ocean is transient. The vast majority (>99%) of the photosynthetic carbon formed in the surface waters is recycled (eaten, oxidized) back to CO2 before it ever reaches the deep ocean. Thus, except for the phytoplankton that secrete calcium carbonates (coccoliths), the long-term sequestering of CO2 is essentially nil. Even those with CaCO3 will be recycled when the calcite sinks below the CCD… the carbonate compensation depth. What’s critical? The heterotrophs… the consumers who “eat” the photosynthetic carbon. Otherwise, we would tend toward an oxygen runaway. That’s the carbon cycle. RE. the discarded plastic. That’s certainly lamentable but like the CO2 in the atmosphere it’s the net result of our ever-increasing population. Can’t have it both ways.

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