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NATURAL MYSTERY: 'Black holes' discovered at sea

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 24th, 2013
Catholic Online (

Invisible to the naked eye, astronomers are convinced they exist. The concept of "black holes," tears in the fabric of space-time that pull in everything that comes too close to them. In astronomical terms, this means that everything sucked in can never escape - not even light. Scientists now believe they have found features of these types of phenomena in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Some of the largest ocean eddies in this region are the mathematical equivalent to the mysterious black holes of space.

According to researchers from ETH Zurich and the University of Miami, this means that they do the same thing with water, that black holes do with light. So tightly surrounded by circular water paths, nothing caught up in these eddies can ever escape. Furthermore, their numbers are reportedly on the rise in the Southern Ocean, increasing the northward transport of warm and salty water.

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Ocean eddies are typically bigger than a city and contain a billion tons of swirling water. Taking a few days to rotate, the eddies drift slowly and carry warm and cold water around the ocean. 

Despite their importance in driving large-scale ocean circulations, eddies are not fully represented in climate models like those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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Scientists now believe that these ocean eddies could moderate the negative impact of melting sea ice in a warming climate. Scientists have been unable to quantify this impact because the exact boundaries of these swirling water bodies have remained a mystery.

George Haller, professor of Nonlinear Dynamics at ETH Zurich, and Francisco Beron-Vera, research Professor of Oceanography at the University of Miami, thinks they have stumbled upon the answer.

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Using mathematical models, they isolated water-transporting eddies from a sequence of satellite observations. By detecting their rotating edges, which the scientists found were indicators of the whirlpool within. Surprisingly, these eddies turned out to be mathematically equivalent to black holes.

Instead, it dramatically bends and comes back to its original position, forming a circular orbit. A barrier surface formed by closed light orbits is called a "photon sphere" in Einstein's theory of relativity.

In these barriers, fluid particles move around in closed loops - similar to the path of light in a photon sphere. As in a black hole, nothing can escape from the inside of these loops, not even water.

Identifying seven Agulhas Rings of the black-hole type, scientists discovered which transported the same body of water without leaking for almost a year. "Mathematicians have been trying to understand such peculiarly coherent vortices in turbulent flows for a very long time," Haller explained.

Their results are expected to help in resolving a number of oceanic puzzles, ranging from climate-related questions to the spread of environmental pollution patterns.

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