Science Saturday: Whirlpools Are Like West Side Story Knife Fights

            Look up whirlpool on Wikipedia and, for some strange reason, the dangers of this watery vortex are the most discussed topic. The article is quick to point out that us “laymen” (read as: dummies) tend to think of whirlpools as vast hidden black holes somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle, eating cruise liners and commercial fishing boats and then—not so politely—burping up the unmanned remains miles from the disaster. The article is also quick to make it clear: you are not thinking of whirlpools, you are thinking of maelstroms!

            So what causes these powerful maelstroms, as it were? In a strictly fluid dynamics sense, maelstroms and whirlpools are vortexes. They occur when two opposing tides meet. At this stage, the two tides enter a swirling dance or, perhaps more accurately, a West Side Story knife fight. The science beyond this can be complicated. If a “downdraft” occurs (a downdraft is basically the sucking force of a vortex—please no angry letters, prospective fluid dynamists, for my oversimplification) the salty vortex has achieved the name “maelstrom”. Congratulations, my sea-living friend!

            The fluids around the mouth of the vortex at the surface of the water spin fastest and can become tightly concentrated. As you flow down past the mouth, columns of water begin to spin slower.


What fluid dynamists see when they look at a maelstrom.


            In any case, there have not been many reported cases of maelstroms affecting sea vessels. However, some of the earliest writings on whirlpools/maelstroms come from Paul the Deacon. In his medieval day, some time in the 700s, Paul was called “That Dude”. That Dude wrote a book called the History of the Lombards, which contains six volumes. This is at a time, remember, when Johannes Gutenberg, who would invent the printing press, was just a glint of a glint of a glint in the eye of his great-great-great…etc.-grandfather. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and arthritis were not terms used in medicine yet, but I’d venture to guess That Dude was hardly able to move his hand by the time he died.

            In the History of the Lombards, there is a tale of a ship off the coast of Britain. The vessel was caught in a swirling body of water, ostensibly a maelstrom. The seaworthy crew apparently had no expertise in such a phenomenon. Soon the ship had  bowed underneath the ocean gradient. One lucky survivor was spit out to the edge of the vortex, but was still threatened. In That Dude’s words, the “charybdis” was near devouring him. In those days, maelstroms were believed to hide a sea monster, the charybdis, at their depths that would devour any who entered. Luckily the lone survivor of the wreck was spit out to “sit upon” a rock on the shore. What a fortunate fellow.


Paul the Deacon, or That Dude, in a medieval script.


What qualifies me to write this article? Well a science degree from the University of Florida, for starters. Also, access to the wonderful website Wikipedia. Many of the articles I have written in fact are purely what I would call “Wikipedia Riffing”. Love it or Leave it.


–It’s a Beautiful Day, I Need a Swirling Drink


3 thoughts on “Science Saturday: Whirlpools Are Like West Side Story Knife Fights

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