Phenomena

Real-Life Whirlpools

Literature is full of descriptions of monstrous whirlpools like Charybdis, which threatens Homer’s Odysseus. While it’s not unusual to see a small free vortex in bodies of water, most people would chalk boat-swallowing maelstroms up to literary device. But it turns out that, while there may not be permanent Hollywood-style whirlpools, there are several places in the world where the local tides, currents, and topology combine to produce turbulence, dangerously vortical waters, and even standing vortices on a regular basis. 

One example is the Corryvreckan, between the islands of Jura and Scarba off Scotland. In this narrow strait, Atlantic currents are funneled down a deep hole and then thrust upward by a pinnacle of rock that rises some 170 m to only 30 m below the surface. The swift waters and unusual topology produce strong turbulence near the surface and whirlpools pop up throughout the strait. Other “permanent” maelstroms, such as those in Norway and Japan, arise from tidal interactions with similar structures rising from the sea floor.

For more, check out this Smithsonian article, Gjevik et al., Moe et al., and the videos linked above! (Photo credits: Manipula, Tokushima Gov’t, Wikimedia, and W. Baxter; requested by @kb8s)

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