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S Marks the Spot

Nearly 50 years ago, a group of scientists set out from Bermuda on the 61-foot R/V Panulirus and cruised 15 nautical miles to the southeast. They strung Nansen bottles on a cable and collected water samples from the surface to the seafloor. They measured the salinity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen in the water. In the process, they started one of the longest year-round chronicles of the open ocean in the history of science.

Approximately every two weeks since June 7, 1954, scientists from the Bermuda Biological Station for Research (BBSR) have returned to the exact spot—32º10’N latitude, 64º30’W longitude—and repeated the process. By November 4, 2003, researchers had made 1,000 samplings at “Station S.”

“It wasn’t at all clear then what such a series would reveal, or if it would be interesting,” said then-WHOI Senior Scientist Henry Stommel, who helped initiate the series along with BBSR Director William Sutcliffe. But Station S has had more impact than the visionary scientists could have imagined.

Data from these profiles of the water column have been widely used for monitoring long-term changes in both North Atlantic circulation and global climate. The importance of the data prompted the establishment of a sister site, the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study, in 1988. Together the sites have become a model for other integrated ocean observation programs around the globe, and both projects will figure prominently in the science done by researchers in the Station W project.

“Station S is a perfect tribute to the foresight of the late Henry Stommel, and to his legacy of contributions in advancing the understanding of the oceans,” said WHOI President and Director Bob Gagosian during an event commemorating the 1,000th sampling. “Station S continues to be our window into the climate of the North Atlantic. It also underscores the valuable and long-enduring  relationship between the BBSR and WHOI.”

Originally published: November 1, 2003