May 30, 2017
Slick thinking: 19th-century sailors poured fish oil on the ocean surface to dampen waves during a storm, enabling the rescue of a battered merchant ship.
In 1883, the Grecian, a merchant ship bound from Philadelphia to Portugal, was caught in a raging storm. When hope was almost lost, a rescue vessel, the Martha Cobb, spotted them and rushed to their aid. But with the storm still overhead, how did they succeed? According to historical records, the crew of the Martha Cobb poured 19 liters of fish oil in the space between their ship and the foundering Grecian. Within minutes, the oil had calmed the waves to the point that the Grecian's crew could be safely transported to the Cobb.
In a novel approach, a research team at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, Calif., has used this thrilling account to examine how oil slicks affect ocean waves. According to co-author Xin Zhang, most examples of oil dumping that he and his team came across did not include sufficient quantitative data.
Lead author Charles "Chip" Cox discovered the Grecian's story, but passed away in November 2015 shortly after completing the paper's initial draft. Zhang credits his late colleague with the study's success: "This record that Chip found really gave us the information that we needed."
Read about the daring rescue and its implications for wave dynamics research in EARTH, now online at
The June issue of EARTH is now available online. In this month's Travels in Geology, read about the hydrogeologic ties that bind the Okavango Delta, a major river delta in the middle of the dry Kalahari, and thundering Victoria Falls, a day's drive away. And don't miss a returning favorite: EARTH has partnered again with the U.S. Geological Survey to bring back the "Mineral Resource of the Month." For these stories and more, subscribe to EARTH Magazine.
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