Puzzle in the Atlantic

by Judith Curry

I’m scratching me head over this one.

Last week (4/17), I received an email from a commercial pilot:

I have taken some pictures on my last flight that show some oceanic conditions that I have not seen before and I wonder if you might be able to enlighten me about what they are.

For many years I have been flying international trips across the Atlantic. Our routing varies daily, based on atmospheric conditions such as wind patterns and and turbulence. Our tracks vary from as far north as Iceland and southern Greenland or as far south as the Azores. Much of the time the ocean surface is not visible due to the flights being at night or the presence of an undercast cloud layer. On Tuesday, April 14, the skies below were clear and I took the attached photos that displayed sea conditions that I have not seen before.

I have seen icebergs coming from Greenland and all the way down the Canadian coast as well as ice floes along the shore. These pictures were taken at about N48 W048. We were headed approximately westbound so the left of the photos are to the south and the right toward the north. This formation extended as far as could be seen to the north. It appeared flat in nature.

It seemed very unusual. It was both long yet not very wide. Also, it seemed early in the year with no noticeable bergs and farther east and south than I have seen.

East to west maybe 20 miles or so. We were near the southern tip and it extended well to the north (maybe 100 miles or more). Pictures were taken at 35000 ft.

Here are the pictures:







Two days later (4/19), I received another email:

I was hoping our flight today would be near the vicinity of the previous photos. We were farther north this time but the clouds did break up as we approached Canada and I was able to take some more photos to forward. These were taken at approximately N54 W053.5. The first two are looking out the side to the south, so the left is east and the right is west. The third is looking north so the left is west and the right is to the east. Again, our altitude was 35,000 feet.

These are the typical ice patterns I am used to seeing at sea as we start to approach the Canadian coast. I have always thought that they had interesting flow/swirl patterns. I know so little about the ocean but I always assumed that they had something to do with currents and winds and tides.

What made me so curious about the first group that I sent you was their position so far from the coast as well as their narrow width and long length extending so far south. As I mentioned, I know very little about the ocean but I seem to remember something about a north/south current that exchanges warm and cold water somewhere in the Atlantic. I thought maybe there might be a fairly narrow current heading south that would be cold enough to keep them from melting.





JC reflections

Well, it seems to me that there are 3 possible choices:

  • sea ice or ice bergs
  • low level clouds
  • surface spume (here are some google images)

The 3rd and 4th figures look like this could be cloud, but the first two figures don’t look like cloud.

Very far south for sea ice; the pattern doesn’t look like ice bergs?

Some sort of surface spume, associated with what, I don’t know, seems a possibility.

In any event, this feature seems to indicate some interesting mesoscale circulations in the ocean.

Have any of you ever seen anything like this?  I guess when I fly across the Atlantic it is generally dark and I’m trying to sleep.  I will send this to a few oceanographer friends to see what they think.


73 responses to “Puzzle in the Atlantic

  1. Judith,

    I vote for spume based on geological observations in coastal and continental shelf areas, where it can be tied to river discharge including soil, and industrial waste. Also recall seeing spume on two cruises of the Ocean drilling Program out in the Pacific.

    George Devries Klein, hD, PG, FGSA

    • 48W is pretty far from coast at 48N?

      • Perhaps, but spume can drift far out. During two cruises of the Ocean Drilling Program, I saw spume far out in the mid-Pacific.

        As for the comment about submarine volcanoes, perhaps it could also be froth associate with pumice.

        George Devries Klein, PhD, PG, FGSA

  2. It’s the missing heat.

    • But is it the splash when it dives into the ocean, or the eruption out after hiding undetected in the deep and is now going to burn us all?

  3. It doesn’t look like ice Judith. More like salt spume caused by churning from possible volcanic activity on the sea bed beneath and held together by currents and prevailing wind.

  4. Interesting idea; I was wondering about possible volcanic activity, but wasn’t sure how it would produce spume

  5. stevefitzpatrick

    Looks to me like surface effects of deep convective overturning cells (Benard cells), perhaps combined with foam. Floating foam (spume) would accumulate in the regions of surface convergence and down-welling water, and regions with a clear surface would indicate areas of upwelling water.

  6. Danny Thomas

    No Idea, but found this to play with and clicked on the satellite. There appears to be an underwater shelf at that location.http://www.findlatitudeandlongitude.com/?loc=4QFJ15

    Same for 2nd location, but much nearer to coastline: http://www.findlatitudeandlongitude.com/?loc=4QFJ15
    (Hope this work)

    • Danny Thomas

      Sorry, but the image didn’t remain. Just plug in the lat/long, hit enter, then click on satellite.

  7. Hmmmm … might be a Mandelbrot spill.

  8. It’s worse than we thought

    • Yeah, there should be a paper out any day now linking this to climate change:

      Commercial Airline Pilots Dangerously Distracted by Climate Change Swirly Things: Oh! The Humanity!

  9. Peak beard. I predicted it but was laughed at: millions of Northern Hemisphere hipsters shaving for the approaching summer.

  10. David Springer

    It’s boiling water. The laws of physics have been suspended so that all global warming for the past 18 years which spread out evenly through the ocean basin (hidden) has concentrated itself on the Atlantic surface like a swirl of icing on a cake. My baker has a cake modeling program I’ll enter the data and see what it produces.

  11. This is a video that I found which is of course a much close look than the pictures taken by the airline pilot.

    The lines of foam appear to be relatively white prior to becoming dingy looking when mixed with sand and debris.

  12. Thank you for sharing these photographs from the air. Many years ago I used to look for evidence of impact craters on land.

  13. Yamba, to the north of where I live, is long famous for its “cappucino coast” phenomenon. I’m told they’ve copped it in the last few days, after our chaotic east coast low further south. Here’s the Yamba surf club during what I think was the 2007 Big Froth.

    • So the evil Big Froth is to blame now, is it? Big Oil will be most relieved at the emergence of a new scapegoat.


      • In my youth we blamed anything which spoiled the surfing or fishing at Yamba on Big Breakwater, which was pushed through by the Country Party for Big Sugar. For major climate events like the rains of the 1950s and heat/drought of the 1960s we blamed A-bombs, Sputnik, Commos and the bloody Yanks. Silly, because we now know that the major climate shifts of the mid-century never actually happened.

      • Let alone those others waaaaaay back, moso, that
        Tony Brown goes on about. Only the hockey stick
        is real.

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  15. Hey, what does anyone figure the albedo of cappucino is?

    I think I have a marketing idea to sell the IPCC. (keep this under your hat)

  16. Judith, with all the previous hoopla, I’m surprised you are unable to recognize visual evidence of inverted Tiljander sediment affecting the AMOC in real time. This is the evidence so many have been requesting. Some of the lower photos show the additional influence of White Mountain Bristlecones.

  17. Some ocean organism breeding around the new moon?

  18. Both locations are just at the border of the continental shelf. I do not know if that means something.

  19. I would suggest it’s called milky sea effect. It’s phytoplankton drifting in ocean currents.

    It was noted by the Vikings and I think Jules Verne wrote of it.

    I can’t paste a link from my tablet but googling milky seas effect will bring up the info

  20. No Tony, more mysterious.

  21. Behold the Prophecies Have Been Fulfilled!

    Satan’s Gas has Summoned the Climate Change Monster from the Deep and Made Manifest its Ectoplasm!

    Surely the Last Days are Come..and Thermageddon is Upon Us All!

    Deniers! Tremble Before its Awesome Power!

    Temperatures up from 287.1K to 287.7K! Sea Level Up By 4 Inches! pH Down by 0.02 Units! (if you squint a bit and suffer from chronic confirmation bias).

    Nothing Could Withstand These Wild Unprecedented Changes!

    Prepare Ye for The End of Life.

    We’re Doomed

  22. Judith,I am not an old salt but I recognise Plankton scum when I see it. When deep cold nutrient rich water comes to the surface there is a race on to digest all these wonderful goodies that will allow photosynthetic microscopic fauna and flora to multiply and become the beginning of some wonderful food chains that end up with Filter feeding whales and all those big fishes that we love to catch and eat.

    • I guess ‘Plankton Scum’ is like ‘Denier Scum’, but a bit greener?

    • Agreed. A diatom bloom in particular produces this kind of display. Diatoms can last in spore form for hundreds if not thousands of years and when they find themselves up near the surface and light they immediately begin a bloom, since they are photosynthetic, and they produce a lot of white scum. The oceans are thick with them. Any deep upwelling is going to full of diatom spores from below and when they bloom they produce all kinds of stuff including oily scum. There is a lot of talk in the diatom community of which my husband is a part, that diatoms are responsible for the lowered levels of carbon dioxide nowadays compared to earth’s past and all the carbon dioxide we are feeding them is simply going going to result in a lot more diatoms. None of the models have included ocean diatoms in their calculations. Since diatoms currently represent up to 40% of the biomass of the earth, they scavenge minute quantitates of nutrients from sea water, they can eat a lot of carbon dioxide. And when they bloom lots of other creatures feast on them.

  23. While approaching the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets that I visited about 10 times for field works in the summer seasons, I observed similar types of foam accumulation in the sea. We also knew that the rupture of ice clifts on the sea shore, as well as the formation of a huge number of torrents in the melt zone of the ice fields during the summer season (they run first on the surface , where they can either flow to the margin of the ice field or be swallowed by a big hole that direct them to the basement of the ice field , where some of them can finally end up into the sea. They transport tiny chunks of ice that are also released into the sea, where they start floating, moving and possibly decorating specific eddies in the sea . There is a simple check for this idea. This can only happen during the summer season, when the melt zones of the ice fields are not frozen. But sure enough, not during the winter seasons, when the water get frozen. So, did the pilot only observe these odd eddies during the winter seasons? And again many thanks to Judy , who is doing such a superb job running this com, even during the…. winter season.

    • @Michel Maurette Although it is only April, perhaps the “summer season” you describe has started earlier. (I just read an article about trees blooming earlier than average in the Netherlands so I was just wondering.)

  24. Very nice photos and description. Thanks! Curious what the oceanographer will think. Definitely some eddy structure but what is the composition?

  25. The top photo has an interesting pattern not present in the others. From left to right a line of nearly symmetrical wispy upside down question marks. Could that be more indicative of a cloud pattern and separate from the larger , more dense pattern?

    • cerescokid- I believe your question marks are actually reflections in the airplane window through which the photo was taken of some ventilation holes cut into the sill in front of the window. (It’s more obvious in the magnified version of the photo.)

  26. Here is a fairly recent 50-day hi-res movie of SST anomaly in the area. There is a recent warming in the region between Greenland and Labrador, and changes further south, though not obviously unusual.

  27. This is sea ice, and very clearly marked in that region in the Canadian Ice Service ice chart for 17 April at:

    N48 W048 is not so far south to be finding sea ice and icebergs at this time of year. This is the Grand Banks, and where the cold Labrador Current coming out of Baffin Bay along the east coast of Canada terminates. Titanic sank further south than this near N41 W049.

    The ice chart indicates that the ice in this location is drifting 2 nautical miles per day to the north-east, and that strips and patches of ice (horizontal S on the chart) are to be found on the eastern side. These align approximately parallel to the wind direction and are generated by Langmuir circulation. These are very common where you have a wind blowing off of an ice edge, and are quite often seen nicely in satellite images, particularly those from radar (see http://www.polarview.aq/ for access to images from the Sentinel-1 satellite, for example on the east Greenland ice edge http://www.polarview.aq/images/106_S1jpgsmall/S1A_EW_GRDM_1SDH_20150424T175501_76E2_N_1.jpg )

  28. kim was right. The ice age is upon us. It’s worse then he/she thought.

  29. Here’s a set of maps, buoy data, current schematics, and my thoughts about the photograph. I suspect it’s foam, or possibly low level fog banks? The Gulf Stream and the Labrador current rub shoulders at this location.


  30. My vote is for ocean morphing global schooling…

  31. Georgia Tech oceanographer Annalisa Bracco emailed this:

    Pattern formation at the ocean surface: Sargassum distribution and the role of the eddy field. L&O Fluid and Environments, 2, 12-27, doi:10.1215/21573689-1573372

    my best guess (pretty sure for the second set though): sea ice organized around convergence regions linked to submesoscale dynamics (dynamics at 100m-10km).
    There are similar images taken of algae organized in eddies. Check figure 1, 8 and 11 in the linked to paper

    I would think also the first set has a similar origin but being further south the only ice left is in strong frontal regions (likely at the interface between coastal and open ocean. In this area the warmer currents are found along the shelf and colder off-shore, so it could explain the front).

    In the first set of photos there are also langmuir fronts pretty evident (similar fronts have been observed after the gulf oil spill – http://cdn.phys.org/newman/gfx/news/hires/1-Gulf_of_Mexico_oil_slick_29_April_2010_H.jpg – Any floating material will aggregate similarly, and in the photos my best guess is ice -I’m 100% sure for the second set)

  32. Jos de Laat, Research Meteorologist with KNMI, email:

    Read your post about the “Puzzle in the North Atlantic”, I had seen that phenomenon last month or so it has been there for some time this spring so I thought to have a quick look at MODIS satellite data.

    Summary: surely looks like icebergs & remnants, coming off the coast of Canada (Quebec) and then being transported to the southwest. This phenomenon has been around for quite some time.

    Below follow links to MODIS images and satellite products and short descriptions of what you can see.

    MODIS image over the area at the location of interest:

    Clearly visible in various MODIS derived products:

    (WV NIR channel). This could be the algorithm going astray. In our own recent work we see that these type of algorithms can misinterpret snow/ice as optically thick clouds, leading it to think that the optical thickness must be high as the cloud is very low in altitude. See also the structures around Greenland.


    Cloud Optical Thickness is basically absent (algorithm does not recognize this as a cloud)


    Similar for the effective particle radius (again, algorithm does not recognize this as a cloud)


    Cloud Top Pressure is really, really close to the surface (~ 1000 hPa)


    Cloud Top Temperature is somewhere not too far from zero degrees (273 K)


    If you go to the 19th, same story:

    Satellite image: structure is clearly visible off of Newfoundland, which appears to extend from the sea ice area further up north/northwest of Newfoundland and off the coast of Quebec (is it Quebec?).


    (WV NIR channel)


    Cloud Optical Thickness: nothing.


    effective particle radius: not a cloud.


    Cloud Top Pressure is close to 1000 hPa


    Cloud Top Temperature appears around freezing (273 K)


  33. It is clear to me that the Climate Alarmists are really going to have a difficult row to hoe.

    Too many other people are watching everything!

    Dr Curry, you bring a huge number of wonderful observers out with huge amounts of wonderful data and knowledge and images.

    Thank You!

  34. I would hope with all the technology in the sky we could get a time lapse visual of the area involved. Boat and bouy observation/data too. Could be associated with the AMO flipping?

  35. This is obviously Godzilla.

  36. Re: Puzzle in the Altantic, 4/25/2015

    Jeez (4/26/15 12:40 am) and stevefitzpatrick (4/25/15 10:16 pm) just about has their fingers on it. AMOC? Down-welling? Could be.

    The real story of Earth’s climate is the Sun coupled into the dominant ocean currents, especially the MOC (aka THC, Great Conveyor Belt). Cold water from the depths of the ocean is drawn to the surface by Ekman transport, strongest as it happens in the Eastern Equatorial Pacific. That finger of cold water, laid out on the surface, is warmed by the tropical Sun to nearly the maximum anywhere, around 35C. The ocean, being the darkest of surface features, is the most absorbent, and so accounts for most of the heat acquired, and most of that at the Equator where the incidence angle is high. That warming causes massive outgassing of CO2, which rises with the thermals into the Hadley cells, and then as it cools, being heavier than air (molecular weight 44 for CO2 vs. 39 for air), it descends to the surface, most notably over MLO. All of this is, of course, seasonally modulated during the surface absorption and again as winds are seasonally modulated over MLO.

    Meanwhile, the suface water, low in density from being warmed, and from being low in CO2, is further mixed with air by winds, to form the light surface layer. That layer migrates poleward, across the surface, minimally connected to deeper waters, losing heat through longwave radiation, and recharging with CO2 as it cools, as dictated by Henry’s Law coefficient for CO2 in water. When the surface layer reaches the highest latitudes, dense from cooling down to about 0C and saturated with CO2, it descends to depths, to migrate there until a millennium or so later, when still dense with cold and CO2, most of it is sucked up to the surface by what is called the Coriolis effect and the resulting Ekman circulations. Other parts pop up sooner in up-wellings in a few other locations.

    The estimate for that MOC current is 15 Sv (1 Sverdrup = 10^6 m^3/sec), where all the rivers of world combined amount only to about 1 Sv. When the MOC plunges to the bottom, it’s gotta leave a mark.

    What’s really puzzling is not that we may have a picture of the scummy surface over the main drain, but that the process has escaped climatology.

  37. I vote for sea foam. The surface analysis from a few days prior shows an approaching warm front which induced some fairly good easterlies which would tend to generate foam on the coast. The sfc winds shifted after the fropa with a good westerly component which would have pushed the foam quickly off the coast. As a long-time sailor, I’ve seen this in action before albeit not at this scale.

    But what I really want to know is this…what does Michael Mann think? lol

  38. We have crowdsourced three plausible answers. For the first sets of pictures (but not the second), I think it is possible to eliminate two. Persistent seafoam (Australia picture) usually is a byproduct of biological activity (plankton and such produce lipids–that is how Ma Nature made oil). Blooms require upwelling. Upwelling is near coasts and this isn’t.
    Ditto for diatomaceous or coccolithophorid blooms that show whitish from their calcarious exoskeletons. Plus, they do not get that concentrated in the photic zone.
    That leaves residual surface ice, IMO

  39. The first, second and fourth one are fairly clear views. The third one involves clouds and the last two also involve clouds. In my opinion we are looking at a border zone where two massive ocean currents of different origin meet along a dividing line and rub shoulders. Their temperature and salinity are likely to be different and their mixing along the contact zone is what produces the visible display. The fourth picture shows clouds forming as the oblique wind crosses the demarcation line between them, a sure sign that one of these massive currents is quite a bit warmer than the other one is. We can say that one of them came from the south, perhaps hitching a ride with the Gulf Stream. The cold one then has to be from the north, perhaps from the Labrador Sea. Do currents from these places ever meet? I don’t know but someone with local knowledge could probably take it from there.,

  40. harrytwinotter

    Fish spawning slick?

  41. It looks like aggregates of melting ice, bergy bits etc, larger and further off the coast than this: https://diggingintheclay.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/pcs-052.jpg (Posted here: https://diggingintheclay.wordpress.com/2010/06/26/they-believe-it-is-cyclical/). Wind and currents will combine to elongate these and in relatively calm weather they would extend for long distances. Perhaps this one is just a fortunate conjunction of unusually calm conditions in a region further from the coast, and time if year.

  42. It’s surprising that crowd-sourcing never came up with the action of sperm whales as the explanation.

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