California Literary Review

The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic by Stan Ulanski

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October 22nd, 2008 at 9:53 am

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The Gulf Stream by Stan Ulanski
The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic
by Stan Ulanski
The University of North Carolina Press, 232 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

A River of Immense Dimensions Revealed

The concept of a river that carries a force of water that is three-hundred times greater than the Amazon at its mouth (one-fifth of the fresh water entering the oceans world wide), carries sufficient thermal and kinetic energy to power the energy needs of the United States for one year four-hundred times over and wanders unchecked for thousands of miles while influencing the climate of several continents may seem far fetched or perhaps the conjurings of an addled mind.

Such is not the case. There is such a flow on this planet and it’s called the Gulf Stream. In his book by the same title Stan Ulanski, professor of geology and environmental science at James Madison University and author of The Science of Fly-Fishing, describes and explains these watery dimensions along with a good deal more including the history of exploration of the stream and its impact on human history. Subtitled Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic, the book takes the reader on a pelagic voyage about the Atlantic Ocean and through time as Ulanski documents the historical aspects of discovery, exploration and utilization of the Gulf Stream by traders and voyagers. The Sargasso Sea along with its curious occupants is also explored and explained in depth.

This oceanic river is like no river on land: its size, range, and power dwarf even the mightiest continental river. And although its ‘banks’ are fluid ocean, not soil and rock, it is clearly visible from space. From its tropical origins, the Gulf Stream moves water poleward at a rate hundreds of times the combined flows of the Amazon and Mississippi Rivers. This river, an ocean current, is part of something larger than itself – a great, clockwise-flowing gyre, the main water circulation system of the North Atlantic Ocean.

So says Ulanski in the book’s preface.

I’ve had the opportunity to fish the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida and was always amazed at this current flowing steadily northward, the water a distinct color from the surrounding seas. The size of this river is immense, beyond my abilities of visualization – 50 to 93 miles wide and 2,600 to 3,900 feet deep. The current velocity is fastest near the surface, with the maximum speed around 5.6 mph. Clumps and strands of Sargassum weed drifted by as we trolled the waters for billfish or cast to feeding game fish with 10-weight or larger fly rods. It was like being on another planet, so different was this from anywhere else I’d traveled. I’d experienced this other-worldly disorientation at other times like when traveling above the Arctic Circle in the Yukon or roaming the unpopulated, volcanic landscaped interior of Iceland. These are always humbling and revelatory times. My life turns instantly towards insignificance and the elaborate, even elegant, order of the natural world appears.

The Stream is part of an enormous whirl of water that circulates around the North Atlantic.

While winds like the jet stream girdle the globe, large swirls of water are found within the oceans of the northern and southern hemispheres. Water flows around ocean basins in closed circulations, known as gyres. These huge, circular currents, enclosing over a million square miles of ocean, are the result of global wind patterns and are common to the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Regarding the power potential of the Gulf Stream I came across this at Wikpedia – “The Gulf Stream transports about 1.4 petawatts of heat, equivalent to 100 times the world energy demand. and research is underway to tap this power in a couple different ways. One idea, which would supply the equivalent power of several nuclear power plants, would deploy a field of underwater turbines placed 1,000 feet under the center of the core of the Gulf Stream. Ocean thermal energy could also be harnessed to produce electricity, utilizing the temperature difference between cold deep water and warm surface water.”

Makes off-shore oil drilling, clean coal and nuclear power seem miniscule, unnecessary given the proper amount of impetus and research.

The beauty of Ulanski’s book is that he not only brings to light the size, scope and influence of the Stream on our natural world, he also devotes sizable portion of The Gulf Stream on the impact on human history with chapters titled Exploration and Discovery and Colonization of America. Other sections include in order: Swirls and Conveyors, Anatomy of a Gulf Stream, Flowing Down the Hill: The History of Ocean Circulation, Floaters and Drifters, Bluefin Tuna: The Great Migration and Fishing the Blue Waters.

The section on ocean circulation was particularly fascinating. The idea that ocean currents circling the Atlantic force the waters to rise up in an enormous mound of six feet or more hundreds of miles from land and the view of all but sailors seems, again, incongruous; and Ulanski flirts with the poetic when he concludes:

The quest for a complete image of ocean circulation was a long and arduous journey, but one fact became inescapable: the atmosphere and the ocean are inextricably linked. Wind drives the ocean’s great gyres: the sea, in turn, drives the atmospheric engine. The circle remains unbroken.

Aside from providing an easily assimilated scientific and historical overview, The Gulf Stream describes and mammoth natural system that helps drive the living organism that is earth. In these regards Ulanski has done his job as a writer.

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