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What is a maelstrom?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. The word maelstrom refers to a large whirlpool. In certain tidal and wind conditions, a large rotation of water can form. If this is coupled with a sufficient downward force, it results in a maelstrom. Maelstroms are extremely dangerous natural phenomena, easily capsizing and even consuming small sea vessels.

    Edgar Allen Poe spread the word about this whirlpool in his "Descent into the Maelstrom." The particular whirlpool  from which Poe drew inspiration was the Moskstraumen in Lofoten Norway. It also inspired Jules Verne in his telling of "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" and Herman Melville in his classic sea adventure "Moby Dick." The water where the Moskstraumen lies is in a key fishing area off the Norwegian coast, and only local fishermen who know the waters well are recommended to fish there [source: Norway Outdoors].

    The coast of Norway also plays host to what some consider the most powerful maelstrom on Earth: the maelstrom of Saltstraumen. Every six hours, the maelstrom kicks into gear, and currents that top out at 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour) shoot through a 492-foot-wide (150-meter) and 1.9-long (3-kilometer) strait that connects Skjerstadfjord and Saltenfjord. The whirlpool created by the rush of water is 33 feet wide (10 meters) and 16 feet (5 meters) deep, plenty strong enough to wreak some serious havoc. Using tidal tables, it's possible to get an idea of when passage is safer in the area, but it's a good bet that no one gets too comfortable doing so [source: Visit Norway].

    And, lest we leave the impression that maelstroms are a phenomenon peculiar only to Norway, whirlpools pop up all over the globe. The Corryvreckan maelstrom is off the coast of Scotland; the "Old Sow" maelstrom whirls away in the waters off of Maine and New Brunswick; Japan's Naruto strait has respectably fearsome whirlpools; Hawaii has the Kauai maelstrom; and even Niagara Falls has an eponymous whirlpool that packs a wallop [source: WebEcoist].

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