The Atlantic Ocean suffers from a PR problem, frequently viewed as a boring, domesticated expanse of water with little mystery. This typecasting is largely due to its longstanding role as a maritime highway between Europe and the United States, an impression bolstered by travelers who jet back and forth “across the pond.”
But you only need to look beneath the surface to expose a complicated world with the dynamism and diversity to rival any sea on the planet. Humpback whales swim more than 4000 miles during seasonal migration patterns. On the seafloor, new crust is born and hydrothermal vents spew superheated fluids along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which forms part of the world’s longest mountain range. Two types of geochemically exotic hydrothermal vents have only been seen in the Atlantic (the Lost City serpentinization vents) and the Atlantic-adjacent Caribbean Sea (the talc-rich Von Damm Vent Field).
Later this year, to showcase the Atlantic’s under-appreciated wonders and global importance, Nat Geo WILD will air a three-hour special on “The Wild Atlantic” from the BBC’s renowned Natural History Unit. It’s been a long journey for Series Producer Dan Rees and his team: two years of production and more than 20 filming trips in 17 countries, including one nine-week marathon to visit several rugged islands in the South Atlantic. “We’re hoping to make people feel a sense of wonder about our planet,” Rees explains, “and then they might hope to find out more and protect this incredible place.”
Among the more surprising aspects for Rees – a native Briton – was the clarification of a popular climate myth. “Everyone thinks that Europe is so warm because of the gulf stream,” he says. “But actually, it’s not really the water – it’s more to do with the western airflow, the wind blowing across the warm water, that keeps us warm.” Of course, the water currents – warm surface water moves north, cold deep water circulates south – does have a lot to say about the Ocean’s biodiversity, and any coming changes in the conveyor-belt cycling could be an alarming tipping point.
It’s an active and contentious field of research. A recent study, led by Stefan Rahmstorf of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has documented a persistent cooling of the North Atlantic – a seemingly incongruous result in a time of heightened global temperatures. But the warming is actually the culprit, melting vast volumes of the Greenland ice sheet, whose frigid freshwater spills into the ocean and creates a cold surface layer.
That freshwater is also less dense than salty seawater, and as it mixes with Gulf Stream water that is cooling and preparing to sink, it acts as a buoy, slowing the circulation process. The repercussions are difficult to predict, and the scientists believe global climate models are not keeping up with the data they have been collecting. As Penn State’s Michael Mann proposed in a press release, “climate model predictions are in some respects still overly conservative when it comes to the pace at which certain aspects of climate change are proceeding.”
The heightened scrutiny of the Atlantic presents a challenging paradox representative of oceans around the world. Even as models project substantial global changes and prompt calls for management and mitigation, the world beneath the waves remains a wilderness with much left to be explored.