The best story ever written for the Alaska Dispatch, an online new site that flourished in Alaska for only a handful of years, never won a prize, but it took on a life of its own that continues to this day.
Best is, of course, a hugely selective term, and it is being used here in a purely business sense. Best as in most read or at least most clicked-on and thus best at helping keep various news businesses alive.
If you haven’t actually read this now more than five-year-old story, you are likely to have seen the headline pop up in the “most-read” columns at the news websites it has called home since 2013.
Born at the Dispatch, the story moved to the Alaska Dispatch News after Alice Rogoff bought the Anchorage Daily News and changed its name to save the website address – ADN.com – and yet retain a connection to her original Alaska journalism adventure.
When Rogoff – a former East Coast socialite and then-estranged wife of David Rubenstein, one of the richest men in the country – took the newspaper into bankruptcy on the way to selling the business to The Binkley Company, the story stayed with ADN.com, which eventually went back to being the Anchorage Daily News.
Through it all, the story has been out there steadily pulling in eyeballs. It’s still not unusual to see it pop up on that “most-read” list at ADN.
There is no telling how many times the story has been seen and by how many people, but if Ben Anderson, the then-young reporter who wrote it, had earned a penny every time it was clicked, he might well be a millionaire now. But the system doesn’t work that way.
Anderson got a pat on the back for a job well done, and not much more. He is now gone from the 49th state. He moved on to a bigger and better paying job managing digital content for the Department of Fish & Wildlife in Washington state.
But “the place where two oceans meet” lives on in a server in Anchorage.
When the story was written, no one had a clue it would turn into a long-lived, internet sensation, at least by Alaska media standards. Anderson was only trying to find out how a six-year-old photograph of two different colored bands of water meeting in the Gulf of Alaska was stirring up so much traffic on Reddit.
How had it come to be mislabled “Where the Baltic and North Sea meet,” and why did the waters in question stay separated, at least temporarily, instead of mixing.
Most of the 13 paragraphs of his short story ended up devoted to where the color in the grayer water originated (glacial silt carried to sea by Alaska rivers) and why the different-colored waters don’t immediately mix (strong currents moving parallel to each other or density differences between salt water and freshwater).
“They do eventually mix, but you do come across these really strong gradients at these specific moments in time,” Ken Bruland, a professor of ocean sciences at University of California-Santa Cruz who took the photo, told Anderson.
Contacted four years after the story ran, on a day when the story was again number two on the ADN most-read list, Bruland was still unaware he was part of a small news-phenomenon. He asked to have a copy e-mailed.
“I’d…enjoy seeing it,” he said. ” I’ve had requests for that photo from France.”
The photo and others like it appear immensely popular. There are now dozens of them and some videos floating around in the tubes. Some of the videos explain the failure of the waters to mix as a miracle. Anderson dismissed that in the last two lines of his story.
“So next time somebody shares a ‘really cool photo’ of ‘the place where two oceans meet,’ feel free to let them know the science behind the phenomenon,” he wrote. “After all, in this Internet age, nothing spreads faster than misinformation” or what is now often called “fake news.”
But there is more to this story than fake news; there is also religion, and at the confluences of fake news and religion there is sure to be internet traffic.
Praise be to Allah.
Some believe that in this they see the hand of God.
What does it mean?
al-Munajjid offers two non-scientific explanations both built around the idea the seas are salt water and freshwater.
The earthly, figurative interpretation, he writes, is that the passage is a reference to “the vast lands that separate the rivers from the seas, so that there is no mixing of their waters; rather each of them has its own course and destination that is separate from that of the other.”
The divine interpretation is that “between the two ‘seas, the fresh and the salty, there is a barrier that is not visible to human eyes. Allah created it by His decree and it prevents mixing of the fresh water with the salty water even though the two waters meet at the mouths of rivers.”
The divine versus earthly meaning of these two sentences about the barrier between the seas is a subject of some serious debate in the Muslim world. Google “where two seas meet” plus “Quran” or Qur’an” or “Quaraan” or “Koran” and you will get an endless stream of hits.
There is even a quasi-scientific examination of the subject titled “Refutation of the scientific miracle on the meeting of two seas in Qur’an” complete with drawings and maps and a description of the thermohaline circulation (THC) that keeps ocean waters spinning around the globe.
“Muslim apologists believe that these verses of Qur’an are scientifically accurate,” writes An Ga. “They conclude that since the process was unknown to humankind during the time of Muhammad, these verses are surely revealed by God (Allah).
“I am a physical oceanographer, so I think that I am in a better position to judge these claims. I don’t want you to believe what I am saying. I want you to critically examine my arguments and whether my arguments can be verified and validated.”
Trying to refute religious miracles with science is generally a waste of time. There is a reason religion is called a “belief;” it is because people find comfort in believing it.
Thus al-Munajjid, who runs what he describes as an “academic, educational, da‘wah website which aims to offer advice and academic answers based on evidence from religious texts in an adequate and easy-to-understand manner,” wisely takes a middle ground in offering advice on the two seas passage.
“There is no reason not to adopt both opinions in interpreting this verse, because each is correct and there is no contradiction between them,” he writes. ” The barrier may indeed be dry land that separates rivers and seas, and it may be a virtual barrier (resulting from differences in density) which oceanographers speak of today. This is a different understanding, but there is no contradiction.
“And Allah knows best.”