Woods Hole Ship, Scientists, and Crew Probe Strategic, Turbulent and Terrifying Arctic Oceanic Gateway

Storm at Sea

The Irminger Sea in October 2007
Credit: Kjetil Våge, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

NSF-funded Research Studies one of the Most Climatically Significant and Vulnerable Regions in the World


In the Denmark Strait, Oct. 7, 2008  

Maybe it’s lubberly to talk about those waves in the language of aesthetics, as if they were natural attractions like alpine peaks, but objective nautical numbers didn’t suffice. Were they running 10 meters? Higher. Fifteen?

The 55-knot wind gusted into the high-60s, once hitting 72, but the research vessel Knorr met the waves confidently, bow climbing skyward on the crests, easing down into the troughs. Endless three-story walls of blue-black water, white snakes of foam fleeing down their faces, breakers plunging from their crests.

This was a seascape of exquisite violence, heartlessly beautiful, a privilege to witness—from the safety of Knorr’s bridge. Capt. Kent Sheasley, Second Mate Derek Bergeron, the expedition’s chief scientist Bob Pickart, and a few others still ambulatory discussed the waves in hushed, respectful tones. We watched monsters and thought them wonders of nature.

The Denmark Strait separates Iceland from the east coast of Greenland by 250 miles of tough water. South of the strait, stretching from Iceland down to the latitude of Cape Farewell at Greenland’s southern tip, is the Irminger Sea—the windiest stretch of salt water on the globe. Though neither comes up very often in dinner-party conversation, the Denmark Strait and Irminger Sea comprise one of the most climatically significant and vulnerable regions in the world ocean.

Pickart, a physical oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and other ocean scientists have been probing the Irminger for the past decade. Yet much about these mean waters remains unknown. No one aboard Knorr was surprised that we were hove-to studying nothing but the aesthetics of waves. But not only storms bedevil scientists and seamen in these seas. Their powerful, dizzyingly complex currents, convoluted seafloor topography, and tendency to freeze also challenge those seeking to comprehend these northern watery realms.

Kyle Covert, bosun of the WHOI-operated Knorr, came on the bridge with a damage report. A boarding sea had stove in a steel container mounted on the starboard side. Another boarding wave carried away one of the 2,000-pound mooring balls strapped to a stout rack welded to the deck. The straps didn’t tear; the wave ripped out the welds.

“Also,” said Covert, “the cover on that ventilator on the O-2 deck blew away. We’re taking water.”

We could see the ventilator in question—and the frozen spray on the O-2 deck—from the warm bridge. “Want me to go replace it now?” He was already suited up for battle.

“No,” said Capt. Sheasley, “I don’t want you to go out there.” 

But of course he was going. 

Read the rest of the story here.