May 2 – Islands In The Stream

Today’s Factismal: The Gulf Stream was “discovered” 231 years ago today.

What constitutes being “discovered”? Is is when someone, somewhere, first thinks of something? Or is it when the first bits of evidence that it might actually exist are found? Or is it that “Eureka!” moment when all of the pieces finally fall into place? Well, for scientists, the answer is “none of the above”. For us, something gets discovered when it first gets published. That’s why Brontosaurus lost its name and why Newton never got along with Leibniz; the “wrong” person published first.

And as far as the English were concerned, Benjamin Franklin was the wrong perons. Even though he was America’s first and foremost citizen scientist, the English didn’t like him and refused to listen to many of his ideas simply because they refused to trust any  group that would throw perfectly good English Tea into an American harbor. Unfortunately for the English, that intransigence would come back to bite them in the wallet.

That’s because Benjamin Franklin discovered a faster and safer way to move ships from Europe to America. Then as now, time was money. By using Franklin’s discovery, the American ship captains were able to save one and make the other while English captains refused to listen to the upstart. So what was this amazing discovery? Franklin charted Gulf Stream.

Benjamin Franklin's chart of the Gulf Stream

Benjamin Franklin’s chart of the Gulf Stream

What originally spurred Franklin’s curiosity was a complaint from his boss in England. Ships sailing from Cornwall to New York took much longer to arrive than ships sailing from London to Rhode Island, and his boss wanted to know why. So Franklin went to his brother-in-law, who was a whaler from Nantucket, and asked him. The answer, his brother explained, was because the ships sailing from London rode with a current that flowed from Europe to America while those sailing from Cornwall went against a current that flowed from America to Europe. The whalers knew about the current because it was also rich in fish and whales. This inspired Franklin and he named the putative current the “Gulf Stream” in 1762. For thirteen years, Franklin worked with his brother-in-law and other sea captains to produce a map of the current, which they then published in 1775, just one year before America would declare its independence. But, with typical British intransigence, the English sea captains decided to ignore the “Yankee map”.

Franklin’s interest in teh Gulf Stream lasted for his entire life. On every trip back and forth to Europe, he took careful measurements of everything from location to water temperature, salinity, color, and wildlife. During the last few trips, Franklin even brought along a weighted barrel fitted with valves so that he could capture water from several fathoms below the surface for measurement. He finally compiled all of his results and published them on May 2, 1785, putting the final flourish on work that had begun 23 years earlier.

But Franklin couldn’t have accomplished his work without the contributions of the ship captains who helped him chart the current. Today, scientists are attempting to learn more about severe weather using Doppler radar. And they need your help to refine their data, just as Franklin needed the ship captains. All you need to do is look outside the next time it rains or snows and tell the scientists at the PING network what conditions look like on the ground. To help, go to the PING project:

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