Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Atlantic 'conveyor belt' not slowing, new study finds

29.03.2010
New measurements of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, part of the global ocean conveyor belt that helps regulate climate around the North Atlantic, show no significant slowing over the past 15 years.

The data suggest the circulation may have even sped up slightly in the recent past.

The findings are the result of a new monitoring technique, developed by oceanographer Josh Willis of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., using measurements from ocean-observing satellites and profiling floats.

The findings are published today in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

The Atlantic overturning circulation is a system of currents, including the Gulf Stream, that bring warm surface waters from the tropics northward into the North Atlantic. There, in the seas surrounding Greenland, the water cools, sinks to great depths and changes direction. What was once warm surface water heading north turns into cold deep water going south. This overturning is one part of the vast conveyor belt of ocean currents that move heat around the globe.

Without the heat carried by this circulation system, the climate around the North Atlantic -- in Europe, North America and North Africa -- would likely be much colder. Scientists hypothesize that rapid cooling 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age was triggered when freshwater from melting glaciers altered the ocean's salinity and slowed the overturning rate. That reduced the amount of heat carried northward as a result.

Until recently, the only direct measurements of the circulation's strength have been from ship-based surveys and a set of moorings anchored to the ocean floor in the mid-latitudes. Willis' new technique is based on data from NASA satellite altimeters, which measure changes in the height of the sea surface, as well as data from Argo profiling floats. The international Argo array, supported in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, includes approximately 3,000 robotic floats that measure temperature, salinity and velocity across the world's ocean.

With this new technique, Willis was able to calculate changes in the northward- flowing part of the circulation at about 41 degrees latitude, roughly between New York and northern Portugal. Combining satellite and float measurements, he finds no change in the strength of the circulation overturning from 2002 to 2009.

Looking further back with satellite altimeter data alone before the float data were available, Willis finds evidence that the circulation had sped up about 20 percent from 1993 to 2009. This is the longest direct record of variability in the Atlantic overturning to date and the only one at high latitudes.

The latest climate models predict the overturning circulation will slow down as greenhouse gases warm the planet and melting ice adds freshwater to the ocean.

"Warm, freshwater is lighter and sinks less readily than cold, salty water," Willis explains.

For now, however, there are no signs of a slowdown in the circulation. "The changes we're seeing in overturning strength are probably part of a natural cycle," says Willis. "The slight increase in overturning since 1993 coincides with a decades-long natural pattern of Atlantic heating and cooling."

If or when the overturning circulation slows, the results are unlikely to be dramatic. "No one is predicting another ice age as a result of changes in the Atlantic overturning," says Willis. "Even if the overturning was the Godzilla of climate 12,000 years ago, the climate was much colder then. Models of today's warmer conditions suggest that a slowdown would have a much smaller impact now.

"But the Atlantic overturning circulation is still an important player in today's climate," Willis adds. "Some have suggested cyclic changes in the overturning may be warming and cooling the whole North Atlantic over the course of several decades and affecting rainfall patterns across the United States and Africa, and even the number of hurricanes in the Atlantic."

With their ability to observe the Atlantic overturning at high latitudes, Willis says, satellite altimeters and the Argo array are an important complement to the mooring and ship-based measurements currently being used to monitor the overturning at lower latitudes. "Nobody imagined that this large-scale circulation could be captured by these global observing systems," says Willis. "Their amazing precision allows us to detect subtle changes in the ocean that could have big impacts on climate."

Images:
To download a high-resolution, color illustration depicting the overturning circulation of the global oceans, please go to:

http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/atlantic20100325.html

Title:
"Can in situ floats and satellite altimeters detect long-term changes in Atlantic Ocean overturning?"
Authors:
Josh K. Willis: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA.
Contact information for authors:
Josh Willis, Tel. +1 (818) 354-0881, Email: joshua.k.willis@jpl.nasa.gov
AGU Contact:
Peter Weiss
+1 (202) 777-7507
pweiss@agu.org
NASA Contact:
Alan Buis
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
+1 (818) 354-0474
Alan.buis@jpl.nasa.gov

Peter Weiss | American Geophysical Union
Further information:
http://www.agu.org
http://www.nasa.gov

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Predicting unpredictability: Information theory offers new way to read ice cores
07.12.2016 | Santa Fe Institute

nachricht Sea ice hit record lows in November
07.12.2016 | University of Colorado at Boulder

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Electron highway inside crystal

Physicists of the University of Würzburg have made an astonishing discovery in a specific type of topological insulators. The effect is due to the structure of the materials used. The researchers have now published their work in the journal Science.

Topological insulators are currently the hot topic in physics according to the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Only a few weeks ago, their importance was...

Im Focus: Significantly more productivity in USP lasers

In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.

Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Researchers identify potentially druggable mutant p53 proteins that promote cancer growth

09.12.2016 | Life Sciences

Scientists produce a new roadmap for guiding development & conservation in the Amazon

09.12.2016 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation

Satellites, airport visibility readings shed light on troops' exposure to air pollution

09.12.2016 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>