Chart of the Gulf Stream compiled by the Coast Survey in 1860

This chart of the Gulf Stream, compiled by the Coast Survey in 1860, was based on a series of systematic studies begun in 1845. (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


Early Years (1807-1865)

NOAA's role in the sea extends back to 1807, when President Thomas Jefferson signed a law authorizing the formation of a Survey of the Coast. This agency, which became known as the United States Coast Survey, was NOAA's earliest "ancestor." Under Ferdinand Hassler, its early surveys hugged the coasts and harbors but began inching seaward. Its initial research efforts included embryonic studies of tides and tidal currents, the collection of bottom samples to determine sea-floor characteristics for the anchoring of vessels, and soundings to establish the depth and physical features of near-shore waters.

Piercing Questions

In late 1843, Coast Survey founding superintendent Ferdinand Hassler passed away. He was succeeded by Alexander Dallas Bache, a great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin. Bache proved to be a thoroughly modern science administrator, a great leader, and a man with virtually unlimited vision. Perhaps inspired by his famous great-grandfather, who produced the first map of the Gulf Stream, Bache posed the following questions to one of his captains, Charles Henry Davis, in 1845:

"First. What are the limits of the Gulf Stream on this part of the coast of the United States, at the surface and below the surface?

"Second. Are they constant or variable, do they change with the season, with the prevalent and different winds; what is the effect of greater or less quantities of ice in the vicinity?

Portrait of Alexander Dallas Bach, second superintendent of the Coast Survey

Portrait of Alexander Dallas Bache, second superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey. (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


"Third. How may they best be recognized, by the temperature at the surface or below the surface, by soundings, by the character of the bottom, by peculiar forms of vegetable or animal life, by meteorology, by the saltness of the water?

"Fourth. What are the directions and velocities of the currents in this Stream and adjacent to it at the surface, below the surface, and to what variations are they subject?"

To help determine the answers to these questions, he issued these instructions to Davis:

"(1) Determine the temperature at the surface and at different depths; (2) the depth of water; (3) the character of the bottom; (4) the direction and velocity of the currents at the surface and at different depths; (5) as far as practicable, notice the forms of vegetable and animal life."

Taken as a whole, Bache's questions and instructions encompassed physical, chemical, geological, and biological oceanography and also touched on the interaction of meteorology and oceanography. While countless instruments and theories have evolved in the ensuing years, the underlying philosophy of observation remains the same for today's oceanographers as it was for Bache's captains 150 years ago. Implicit in his instructions was the concept of repeated observations of what Bache surmised would be a dynamic, ever changing Gulf Stream. Bache envisioned a system of transects taken across the Gulf Stream at right angles to the assumed axis of the current, with repeated observations, at different times of the year, over an extended period of years. Unfortunately, this ideal was not attained in his lifetime. Nevertheless, given the constraints of money, ship availability, and the politics of science at the time, he managed to direct pioneering studies of the Gulf Stream for a good portion of the years between 1845 and the onset of the Civil War.



Portrait of Ferdinand Hassler, first superintendent of the Coast Survey.

Portrait of Ferdinand Hassler, first superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey. (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


First Discoveries

Bache's captains discovered and named the "cold wall," the high-temperature-gradient zone that marks the transition between the cooler inshore waters north of Cape Hatteras and the warm Gulf Stream waters. Their deep-sea soundings brought up ooze with shell and coral fragments from great depths; this led to questioning of the premise that life could not exist in the abyssal recesses of the sea. They discovered hints of the incredible complexity of the Gulf Stream, including observations of zones of cool- and warm-water banding; and, incredibly, they discovered what is now known as the "Charleston Bump," and correctly surmised that it caused perturbations in the flow of the Gulf Stream.

Tragically, these studies also provided a number of America's first martyrs to the cause of science. On September 8, 1846, the captain and 10 crewmen of the Coast Survey Brig (Brigantine rigged vessel) Washington were swept overboard during a hurricane off the Virginia Capes. A monument to their memory was erected in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC.

The Coast Survey Brig Washington

Eleven men on the Coast Survey Brig Washington were lost in a hurricane while conducting Gulf Stream studies in 1846. (NOAA Photo Library). Click image for larger view.


It is interesting to note that these Coast Survey studies preceded by 25 years Great Britain's Challenger Expedition, which is often heralded as the beginning of modern oceanography. At the same time, Matthew Fontaine Maury, known as the "Pathfinder of the Seas," had just been appointed head of the U.S. Naval Observatory and was yet to make his mark in oceanography; Edward Forbes, the English marine biologist, had only recently espoused his popularly accepted view that life in the seas did not extend below 300 fathoms (a unit of length used to measure water depth, equal to 6 ft or 1.8 m); and Sir James Clark Ross had observed only 5 years earlier the first modern deep-sea sounding. Oceanography was in its infancy and the Coast Survey was in the "delivery room," developing concepts that have stood the test of time.