The Gulf Stream If you happen to catch a daybreak ride over the

The Gulf Stream
If you happen to catch a daybreak ride over the Bonner Bridge that
spans across Oregon Inlet, or a North Carolina Ferry at sunrise that
skims across Hatteras or Ocracoke Inlets, chances are you will
encounter a fleet of charter boats, single file, making their way west
into the ocean. These charter boats have the same destination and
goal in mind - the Gulf Stream - for some of the best deep sea fishing
along the East Coast.
The coast of North Carolina is one of the best launching points for Gulf
Stream access, located just 12-15 miles off the beaches of the Outer
Banks, and the prospect of reeling in the big one attracts countless
fishermen year after year.
But what is the Gulf Stream and why are its waters so significantly
different from the cool breakers just off the beach? Why is it a harbor
for countless species of fish and ocean life that would otherwise have
no business being located off the coast of North Carolina?
The Gulf Stream is, essentially, a 40-50 mile wide current that runs
through the Atlantic Ocean, but its breadth and speed can categorize it
more accurately as a river. Like all other currents throughout the
world, the Gulf Stream is formed by the sun, the wind, and the water.
Light and heat beams from the sun and hits the earth more directly at
the equator than at the poles. Naturally, this means the air
temperature along the equator is significantly higher.
Because heat moves from warmer to cooler bodies, this hot tropical air
moves towards the poles in large currents that force the cold air at the
poles back towards the equator. The process also causes winds, which
blow across vast areas of ocean and pull the surface water in the same
direction, especially where waves increase the friction between wind
and water. The Earth rotates from west to east and moves under the
atmosphere at the same time the warm air moves north and south
towards the poles.
This makes the pole-heading currents appear to curve to their right in
the Northern Hemisphere and to their left in the Southern Hemisphere.
Off the eastern coast of the United States, warm winds and water
sweep up from the equator toward the pole, curves to the right, and
moves into a clockwise circular pattern over the Atlantic Ocean in its
journey to bring cool polar air back to the equator. This warm rushing
current is the Gulf Stream.
The Gulf Stream begins off the Coast of Africa where the river of ocean
water, called the North Equatorial Current, flows west to the coast of
South America. Once there, the shape of the continent forces the
North Equatorial Current to fork into two branches: one passes into
the Caribbean, while the other flows northeast towards the West
Indies. Eventually, the two separate "rivers" rejoin and flow through
the Straights of Florida at an incredibly fast pace.
The Mississippi River and the Amazon River move water at roughly 0.6
million cubic meters per second. By comparison, the Gulf Stream, as it
flows and forms off of Florida, moves at approximately 30 million cubic
meters per second.
From this starting point, the Gulf Stream flows parallel to the East
Coast of the United States, increasing speed and picking up more
water as it approaches the Carolinas. Off the coast of Cape Hatteras,
the Gulf Stream reaches an estimated 80 million cubic meters per
second. An east-blowing wind separates the Gulf Stream from the
continental margin at Cape Hatteras. Here the Gulf Stream creates a
countercurrent that flows south and west, but the main part of the
Gulf Stream current continues north and slightly east, passes near the
Grand Banks (internationally known fishing waters,) goes south of
Newfoundland, and continues onward towards the British Isles.
Carrying the original tropical waters the Gulf Stream begins with, the
current loses temperature as it moves north, picking up cooler water
and encountering colder air temperature and wind, but it still
maintains a relatively high temperature. The initial Gulf Stream water
is 75 degrees Fahrenheit off the coast of Florida. By the time the Gulf
Stream has moved about 1800 miles north up the U.S. coast to
Newfoundland, its temperature has only dropped to 64 degrees. This is
why when viewing the Atlantic Ocean with an infrared screen to
identify warmer and cooler waters, the Gulf Stream stands out as a
wide line that borders the East Coast.
The Gulf Stream: Weather and Climate
The Gulf Stream is more than just a single current that attracts an
exotic range of fish, and provides quick shortcuts to traveling ships. In
fact, its very existence continuously changes the scope of an entire
continent's weather patterns and climates.
Locally, particularly off the coast of North Carolina, the Gulf Stream
can affect water temperatures, providing warmer ocean waters and
balmy days, even in the height of fall and winter.
In addition, the Gulf Stream can affect local storm systems that form
or meander off the coast. As the currents of eddies often flow in the
same direction as winds, the weather systems can intensify, feeding
off the warmer water below it.
For this reason, the Gulf Stream current also has a remarkable albeit
dangerous ability to feed and intensify hurricanes and tropical storms
which gain strength when passing over warmer waters. This is a
phenomenon seen several times along North Carolina's coast, the most
recent being Hurricane Alex in 2004, which approached the coast as a
moderate tropical storm. After encountering the warmer waters
surrounding Hatteras Island, it made landfall as a category 1
Hurricane, intensifying just miles away from Cape Hatteras.
In terms of overall climate, coastal North Carolina enjoys moderate
temperatures, ranging typically from 50 degrees on average in January
to 80 degrees on average in July, and a portion of this is attributed to
the consistent warmer waters of the Gulf Stream.
The Gulf Stream is especially influential on the climate of the east
coast of Florida, particularly southeast Florida where the current meets
and begins its path up the coast, helping to keep temperatures
warmer than in the rest of the southeastern United States during the
winter. In fact, because of the Gulf Stream's proximity, many coastal
towns along the eastern United States, particularly from Florida to
North Carolina where the Gulf Stream begins to veer east, enjoy
temperate climates that are less volatile and warmer than their inland
This also allows a variety of plans and wildlife to thrive along coastal
areas: wildlife that otherwise wouldn't be found at said area's
particular latitude, were it not close to the Gulf Stream.
On the other side of the world, the Gulf Stream's flow of tropical air
has a significant impact on Europe, particularly England and the British
Isles. Britain and Ireland have balmy climates that are also moderate
and don't fluxuate dramatically, thanks to the warm once-tropic waters
brought in from the Gulf Stream. Like the American East Coast, this
brings a host of wildlife and plants that doesn't belong in a location so
far north. For example, palm trees can thrive in the middle of winter in
Cork, Ireland, even though it's located much farther north than
Montreal, Canada. Essentially, if the Gulf Stream did not exist, the
climate in Britain would be similar to that found in Siberia.
Because of the Gulf Stream's phenomenal and far reaching impact on
global climates, oceanographers and meteorologists pay particular
attention to any suspicious changes in its condition or temperature,
particularly in recent years when the affect of global warming has
come to international attention.
The slightest disruption in the Gulf Stream, whether it's a change in
direction or a change in strength, can have unusual consequences in a
variety of regions.