Dipping a Toe in the Confluence

North Carolina is well known for both its distinctive barrier islands (making Pamlico Sound the largest lagoon in the U.S.) and highly productive fisheries.  Both of these features exist in large part because North Carolina sits that the point where two of the largest ocean currents in the Atlantic meet. From the north, the Labrador Current meanders from the Arctic Circle along the Canadian, New England, and Mid-Atlantic shorelines and crashes into the Gulf Stream at Cape Hatteras, deflecting this warm current off its own shore-hugging course from the south and out across the Atlantic Ocean.  Aside from literally defining the shape of the Outer Banks, the collision zone represents the boundary between temperate waters to the north and subtropical waters to the south.  This presence of this border means that, depending on the time of year and local weather conditions, you can catch just about any marine fish native to the Northwest Atlantic Ocean off of the Outer Banks.

This satellite image of sea surface temperatures shows the Gulf Stream (warm red current coming from the south) meeting the Labrador Current (cold purple current coming from the north). Image from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (whoi.edu).

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Saying goodbye to an old friend: The R/V Cape Hatteras returns home from her final voyage

The R/V Cape Hatteras. Photo by Andrew David Thaler.

The R/V Cape Hatteras. Photo by Andrew David Thaler.

AndrewThumbAt 0930, January 30, 2013, the research vessel Cape Hatteras made her final voyage through the Beaufort Inlet to dock at Pivers Island. The Cape Hatteras served as the flagship of the Duke/University of North Carolina Oceanographic Consortium for 31 years. During that time she logged more than 5000 days at sea over the course of hundreds of research cruises.

In a period where science funding for oceanographic research is at an all time low, the decommissioning of the Cape Hatteras represents a significant loss to America’s research capacity. The Hatteras is the only regional class research vessel on the eastern seaboard south of Delaware. She served a region ranging from the mid-Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico and as far east as Bermuda. She can handle equipment as simple as a box core or trawl or as sophisticated as the ROV Nereus.

In my time at Duke, I participated in two cruises aboard the Hatteras. One is described in my most personal blog post: The Importance of Failure in Graduate Student Training. My co-blogger, Amy, dedicated an entire series to her adventures aboard the Cape Hatteras in the Sargasso Sea.

The Hatteras is only one of several research vessels that have been decommissioned in recent years. She joins the R/V Seward-Johnson (and the Johnson Sea Links), the R/V Point Lobos, the R/V Zephyr, the Albatross IV, and numerous coastal and near-shore research vessels. While new, privately funded ships, like the R/V Falcor, have recently entered service, the loss of so many publicly funded vessels is a major blow to scientific research. The folks at Deep Sea News put out a call for an oceanic equivalent of NASA to meet the United States scientific needs.

The Hatteras was more than just another research vessel, she was a home to many and a symbol of pride for Carteret County. It is estimated that she contributed more than $4 million a year to North Carolina’s economy. Beyond that, she was a friend.

This morning, the Beaufort community came together to welcome the Hatteras back from her final voyage.