IODP Exp. 382 Week 8: Our encounter with stormy seas

Seeing the Southern Ocean in action from the bridge. Photo credit: Thomas Ronge

Michelle writes…

Exp. 382 is quickly coming to an end. We’ve ended drilling at out last site, Site U1538, and we’re now in transit north across the Scotia Sea and heading toward the Straits of Magellan. It’s been slow going the past couple of days because we have hit several storms coming out of the west. Storms are both exciting and terrifying. It’s exhilarating to see waves crashing across the bow and to feel the wind blowing with enough force to knock me backwards. On the other hand, I can’t help but imagine a scenario in which we are stranded in a storm with nothing but miles of ocean between the ship and a safe port. Whatever the storm churns up in the imagination, one thing became very clear to me as I was standing on the bridge watching the swells roll by: we are at the mercy of the weather.

Weathering the storm through a long austral winter night. Photo credit: Thomas Ronge

I rarely find myself in a scenario where I think that I’m at the mercy of the weather. There have been many times where I have felt uncomfortable in the current outside temperature, but I can usually adjust how many layers I am wearing or find shelter inside. Even though I can put on an extra jacket or cozy up in my cabin, I find that I can never truly escape the elements out here. I always feel the waves, I always hear the wind, and I always see the approaching storm.

My current situation is not surprising. After all, I did voluntarily board a ship headed to one of the windiest, stormiest regions on Earth… in late (austral) autumn, no less! The JR is sailing across latitudes infamously dubbed the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties. At these high southern latitudes, the westerly winds flow nearly uninterrupted around the world with few landmasses to get in their way. With such a large fetch (stretch of ocean), the winds are able to generate enormous waves and storms. But that’s not even the most amazing part. What’s truly incredible is that even the mighty westerly winds are not constant. Think of the westerlies like a river. A river can contract and flow faster, or it can spread out and become more like a lazy stream. A river can meander. Over time, the westerlies have contracted and increased in strength; conversely, they have expanded and relaxed. They have also migrated north and south. Their position is related to Earth’s climate state, which also encompasses global atmospheric and ocean temperature, as well as the amount of ice locked up in ice caps and glaciers.

The many aspects of the Earth’s climate can be so clearly felt and seen in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. We have seen the icebergs that have calved off the continent, felt the icy temperatures of a polar climate, and heard the westerly winds as they rip across the ocean. Even though I am climate scientist, I often forget about how the climate and weather affect my everyday life. It’s impossible to ignore this fact while living two months at sea in harsh weather conditions. Ultimately, I am glad to be reminded of it because it puts my science and my choices back home into a clearer perspective. Whether on a ship in Antarctica, or back home in sunny Florida, I am at the mercy of the weather. It’s just that, back home, I have the conveniences of modern society to shield me from a summer that is getting warmer and a climate that is changing. It’s important to remember, however, that not everyone has access to modern conveniences; moreover, our technology won’t always be able to shield us from a climate increasingly defined by drought, flood, and storms. This is why climate science and Exp. 382 are so important. In coming down to the Scotia Sea, we hope to gain a better understanding of a continent that plays a major role in Earth’s climate and global sea level. I hope that we can use that knowledge to better understand our planet and better care for it.

Stormy weather can be as beautiful as it scary. Here, we’re greeted by a spectacular sunrise. Photo credit: Marlo Garnsworthy

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