Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Down the drain

A friend of mine, also a blogger, is doing a post about the weirdest Google search keywords that get people to our blogs.  I know I've thought about that before -- how do people find me?  (My submission: I had one person find Skeptophilia after searching "I saw a light with a vapor."  I still have no idea how that worked.)

In any case, I saw that another contender was that several people had found me after searching "huge whirlpools in Atlantic," which linked them to my post from a few weeks ago about the wingnuts who think that Comet Elenin is going to cause the end of the world.  Mark Sircus, who made the original claim, had made a passing reference (which I had quoted) to the formation of huge Atlantic whirlpools, and that's why the keywords pointed them at my site.

So, this morning, I started thinking, "what huge Atlantic whirlpools?  I haven't heard about any huge Atlantic whirlpools."  So I did a search of my own.  Besides finding a link to my own site, I found a number of references to whirlpools off the coast of Guyana and Suriname.  The original source of the story seems to have been Pravda:
According to Brazilian scientist Guilherme Castellane, the two funnels are approximately 400 kilometers in diameter. Until now, these were not known on Earth. The funnels reportedly exert a strong influence on climate changes that have been registered during the recent years.

"Funnels rotate clockwise. They are moving in the ocean like giant frisbees, two discs thrown into the air. Rotation occurs at a rate of one meter per second, the speed is sufficiently large compared to the speed of oceanic currents, on the border hoppers [sic] is a wave-step height of 40 cm," Castellane said.
I have no idea what the phrase "on the border hoppers" means, and can only assume that it is a mistranslation of some sort -- that phrase appears in every article I looked at that quotes Castellane.

When people read this sort of thing, they typically arrive at several wrong conclusions.  First, they picture these sorts of "whirlpools" as looking like water going down a bathtub drain, and worry that ships might get sucked down to the bottom.  In fact, these rotating discs of water aren't uncommon at all; they're called gyres, and there are two huge ones that have been extensively studied, one in the North Atlantic and one in the Central Pacific.  Gyres are thought to be caused by the flowing of currents in opposite directions on either side of the oceanic basin -- the drag ultimately causes a layer of water in the center of the ocean to rotate.  Unfortunately, these gyres tend to become filled with floating trash, and are a major concern to environmental scientists.

Pravda, however, disagrees that the newly-discovered Atlantic gyres are caused by drag and differential water movement.  The article states that instead, these phenomena might have something to do with the magnetic field of the Earth:
Why do those whirlpools exist for such a long time?  This is partially the effect of Earth's magnetic field. In addition, marine water contains many charged ions, Na and Cl for example.  To crown it all, water molecules are dipoles that are charged both positively and negatively.

Any dipole starts spinning when moving in the magnetic field.  An oceanic ring gathers millions of billions of molecules together.  That is why the giant circle movement triggered by the vertical movement of water may last for months and years mechanically. Ions also give more power to the craters.  Natrium and Chlorum [sic] are charged as well, and their movement in the magnetic field of the Earth also leads to the appearance of the circle movement.
Well, at the risk of angering my Russian comrades, this is patent horse waste.  Water is diamagnetic, which means that it creates a magnetic field in opposition to any applied external magnetic field, but only on a molecule-by-molecule basis.  It's a weak effect; in an extremely powerful magnetic field (such as would be generated by a large electromagnet), the surface of a container of water will dimple slightly.  There is no way that water, even salt water, would generate enough of a magnetic field in response to Earth's that it would move significantly.

But of course, you have to know some science to realize that, and you also have to have some degree of skepticism regarding woo-wooism in general.  Otherwise, you know what happens when someone mentions "giant whirlpools" and "magnetic fields" in the same paragraph?  All of the end-of-the-world loonies remember their ninth-grade Earth Science teachers mentioning something about how the Earth's magnetic field reverses periodically, and they add that to any other nutty ideas they may have heard (2012, the Rapture, conspiracies), and pretty soon you have people running around in circles themselves, but not because they're Experiencing Magnetic Forces on the Natrium and Chlorum ions in their blood.

To illustrate this, here are a few of the more interesting comments I saw on some of these websites, most of which referenced the Pravda article as their source:

"This just blows my mind.  I would love to see a giant whirlpool like this.  I wonder where all the water is going?"

"This just shows that all of the so-called laws of science will be broken as the End Times approach, to show that there is just one law:  the Law of God."

"I heard that this is because of a geomagnetic storm going on right now, a high-speed solar storm.  Basically, spaceweather."  (This reminds me of how the people on Lost In Space were always having to run and hide because of "cosmic storms.")

"Is this near where the Hopi mystics predicted that the Earth would birth a new Moon?"

"This could be the water draining into the Earth.  But remember that water vapor has to condense somewhere.  What if it's just going into the core and staying there because of gravity?"

After that last one, I have to stop, because major sectors of my brain are whimpering in agony.  In any case, if you're planning a Caribbean cruise, I wouldn't worry about huge whirlpools pulling your cruise ship down to the bottom.  I am also not losing any sleep about spaceweather, new Moons, or the End Times.  My general sense is that everyone should just calm down, not to mention learn a little science before you write articles about it.

1 comment:

  1. I don't even know where to begin to comment on those inane comments you mention. The gyres are a simple fact that I teach college freshmen on a regular basis. That there are folks out there that believe all of those CRAZY ideas makes me very afraid. Ignorance is by far the most dangerous thing in the world.