As we pass through the Strait of Belle Isle and emerge from the shelter of Newfoundland's lee, the first mate pipes instructions from the bridge: Lash down or stow all belongings. Rough weather ahead. Two decks below in the main lab, Amy Bower loads onto her extra-large monitor what appear to be abstract paintings, giant red and orange blobs in a field of yellow, as her computer reads text aloud in a robotic voice. Nose almost touching the screen, she searches for clues in the colorful abstractions, which are in fact oversized topographical maps of the Labrador Sea.
A senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Bower is the chief scientist on the first leg of voyage 192, as it's officially called—a search for the hidden weather that roils beneath the sea. She also happens to suffer from not one but two congenital diseases: macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. She is legally blind. But in her 22 years as an oceanographer, she's confronted winter storms on the North Atlantic and Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. With the help of her computer and other instruments, Bower can see the ocean far more clearly than most of us.
Weather permitting, voyage 192 will take us to Nuuk, Greenland, just south of Davis Strait. There, at 60.6°N, 52.4°W, we will deploy a "densely instrumented mooring," a kind of underwater weather vane almost two miles long in waters two miles deep. Then, if all goes well, Bower will use the mooring to gather intelligence on Irminger Rings, a variety of "mesoscale eddy" spawned by the Irminger Current, a remnant of the Gulf Stream. Mesoscale eddies are underwater storms, submarine cyclones the circling currents of which attain a "swirl speed" of around one mile per hour—the speed, in other words, not of a hurricane or a gale but of a breeze. You can't see mesoscale eddies, or feel them. You could be sailing on calm seas, at Beaufort-force 0 ("sea like a mirror"), and the underwater storm of the century could be swirling slowly beneath. Irminger Rings raise a bump on the ocean's surface dozens of miles in diameter but just six inches taller than the surrounding water.
Mesoscale eddies may seem like the sort of thing only a scientist would care about. No one names them, after all, or watches them on the Weather Channel. They've never caused a ship to sink or a sailor to drown. Few people outside the world of oceanography have ever heard of them. Nevertheless, they are as much a cause and effect of the climate as floods and hurricanes. In their slow-moving coils, mesoscale eddies can transport up to 69 trillion cubic feet of water, along with flora and fauna and flotsam, seaweed and krill. If warmer than the water through which they swirl, as Irminger Rings are, they can also transport a great deal of heat. How much heat Irminger Rings transport, no one yet knows. That depends how many are out there, how long they last, how far they travel and where—obscurities Bower hopes her data will illuminate. Of one thing, however, she and other oceanographers are already certain: Irminger Rings exert a profound if subtle influence on the weather of the Labrador Sea and therefore of Greenland and therefore of the world.
The Labrador Sea isn't only the birthplace of Irminger Rings. It is also the birthplace of icebergs, 41 of which, according to Canadian ice charts, are now loose on the Labrador Current. Two seamen begin standing watch instead of one, scanning the horizon with night-vision goggles. Over the PA system, the first mate gives the order to shut the lids of all portholes; night-vision goggles work best in total darkness. One by one, the ship's bright windows wink out.