Ten days ago Discovery had left port in Southampton, England, on what Holliday had hoped would be a typical three-week trip to Iceland and back (punctuated by a little seasickness perhaps, but nothing major). Along the way theyd stop and sample the water for salinity, temperature, oxygen, and other nutrients. From these tests the scientists would draw a picture of what was happening out there, how the oceans basic characteristics were shifting, and why.
These are not small questions on a planet that is 71 percent covered in salt water. As the Earths climate changesas the inner atmosphere becomes warmer, as the winds increase, as the oceans heat upwhat does all this mean for us? Trouble, most likely, and Holliday and her colleagues were in the business of finding out how much and what kind. It was deeply frustrating for them to be lashed to their bunks rather than out on the deck lowering their instruments. No one was thinking about Iceland anymore.
The trip was far from a loss, however. During the endless trains of massive waves, Discovery itself was collecting data that would lead to a chilling revelation. The ship was ringed with instruments; everything that happened out there was being precisely measured, the seas fury captured in tight graphs and unassailable numbers. Months later, long after Avery had returned everyone safely to the Southampton docks, when Holliday began to analyze these figures, she would discover that the waves they had experienced were the largest ever scientifically recorded in the open ocean. The significant wave height, an average of the largest 33 percent of the waves, was sixty-one feet, with frequent spikes far beyond that. At the same time, none of the state-of-the-art weather forecasts and wave modelsthe information upon which all ships, oil rigs, fisheries, and passenger boats relyhad predicted these behemoths. In other words, under this particular set of weather conditions, waves this size should not have existed. And yet they did.
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