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Photo: University of Liverpool

The Inertia

Ocean eddies, like rainbows, are easily explained by science and common occurrences in the natural world. Put two of them together and, as with two rainbows, minds will be blown.

Sure enough, in the latest installment of Random Stuff People Are Discovering In the Ocean, scientists are now trying to understand the bizarre ‘double whirlpools’ observed in the Tasman Sea. Chris Hughes from the University of Liverpool in the UK was studying satellite footage when he noticed strange behavior near Australia. “Almost all these eddies drift slowly westwards, but this little feature was going quickly eastwards,” he told Popular Science.

The phenomenon is something scientists have predicted and theorized for decades but this is the first time they’ve been observed in the ocean. In fact, once Hughes’ initial observation was made, scientists started looking through more satellite footage and realized this was just the first time anybody had noticed them. They’ve now noticed the ‘double whirlpools’ have been popping up in the ocean for at least a quarter century without having realized what they were. Scanning through images as far back as 1993, they found nine instances of this. Eight of them were in the ocean off of Australia and one had formed in the Atlantic, southwest of Africa.

The swirling currents of eddies are significant in the ocean ecosystem because they transport nutrients that are normally found in colder, deeper waters to come to the surface. When two of them meet in the ocean, Hughes says they will generate greater speeds with both eddies swirling in opposite directions. “My thinking is that these linked, fast-moving eddies could ‘suck up’ small marine creatures and carry them at high speed and for long distances across the ocean,” Hughes says. Researchers say the two linked eddies can hold together for as long as six months before they eventually fall apart. The pair of eddies Hughes discovered had moved up to 10 times faster than single eddies would move in the region, traveling from the Tasman Sea and into the South Atlantic, a total of about 1,000 miles in six months.


That’s a lot of stuff flying around the ocean.

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