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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI Friends of Oceanography lecture explores oceanic mapmaking

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Narragansett, RI --February 2, 2004 --The rapid expansion of global exploration from Europe in the 1400 and 1500s led to a corresponding development in the art and science of mapmaking. Since almost all voyages took place by sea, the maps put heavy emphasis on the shape of coastlines and the spatial relationship between countries and continents.

But despite the importance of the oceans to trade and communications, in conflict, and to fishing, the maps give little attention to the ocean as such, with one truly remarkable exception, the subject of a Friends of Oceanography Science Lecture. "The Ocean in Maps from the Renaissance Era and the 1539 Carta marina" will take place on Thursday, February 12, at noon in the Coastal Institute Auditorium on the URI Bay Campus in Narragansett. The speaker will be Dr. Thomas Rossby, a physical oceanographer at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography.

The lecture will focus on the Carta marina published by Olaus Magnus in Venice in 1539. In this map of the Nordic countries, a map which broke completely new ground in terms of size, accuracy and information content, he gives the ocean astonishing physical presence by drawing in sea monsters, some more strange than others, merchant ships, fishing boats and kayaks. He also gives the ocean itself unusual presence or "texture" including whorls, or eddies in modern terminology.

Rossby will briefly review the evolution of maps in the Renaissance leading up to the publication of the 1539 Carta marina, of which there exists two copies, one in Munich, Germany, and the other in Uppsala, Sweden. After a brief survey of the many, many pictorials throughout the map, each one a mini-story, he will focus on the ocean between Scandinavia and Iceland. In particular, Rossby will consider the meaning of a band of whorls Magnus drew in the map east of Iceland.

The location of these coincides almost perfectly with the Iceland-Faroes Front, a major ocean current that is part of the system of warm currents that help keep northern Europe habitable. Nowhere else in the chart do whorls appear in such a systematic fashion. It is possible that Magnus drew these to indicate the special nature of the waters east of Iceland, and as such would appear to be the earliest known description of mesoscale eddies in the ocean. During the life of Olaus Magnus, his travels and contacts, it seems likely that he got his information from mariners of the Hanseatic League operating out of northern Germany cities, many of which he is known to have visited and lived in both before and after he was exiled from Sweden.

A resident of Saunderstown, Rossby received a B.S. in applied physics from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and a Ph.D. in oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research interests include the dynamics and kinematics of ocean currents with special interest in the Gulf Stream and the circulation of the North Atlantic. He is also interested in ocean instrumentation.

Established in 1985 to support and promote the activities of the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, Friends of Oceanography informs and educates the membership and the general public about the scientific, technological, and environmental research that takes place at GSO. The organization sponsors public lectures, open houses, marine-related mini-courses, science cruises on Narragansett Bay, and an annual auction. For information about Friends of Oceanography, call 874-6602.