A University of Washington study for the first time recorded such a wave breaking in a key bottleneck for circulation in the world’s largest ocean. The study was published online this month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Tom Peacock, MIT | Wide Eye Productions
The deep-sea waves are 800 feet tall, as high as a skyscraper.
The deep ocean is thought of as dark, cold and still. While this is mostly true, huge waves form between layers of water of different density. These skyscraper-tall waves transport heat, energy, carbon and nutrients around the globe. Where and how they break is important for the planet’s climate.
“Climate models are really sensitive not only to how much turbulence there is in the deep ocean, but to where it is,” said lead author Matthew Alford, an oceanographer in the UW Applied Physics Laboratory. He led the expedition to the Samoan Passage, a narrow channel in the South Pacific Ocean that funnels water flowing from Antarctica.
“The primary importance of understanding deep-ocean turbulence is to get the climate models right on long timescales,” Alford said.
Dense water in Antarctica sinks to the deep Pacific, where it eventually surges through a 25-mile gap in the submarine landscape northeast of Samoa.
“Basically the entire South Pacific flow is blocked by this huge submarine ridge,” Alford said. “The amount of water that’s trying to get northward through this gap is just tremendous – 6 million cubic meters of water per second, or about 35 Amazon Rivers.”
In the 1990s, a major expedition measured these currents through the Samoan Passage. The scientists inferred that a lot of mixing must also happen there, but couldn’t measure it.
In the summer of 2012 the UW team embarked on a seven-week cruise to track the 800-foot-high waves that form atop the flow, 3 miles below the ocean’s surface. Their measurements show these giant waves do break, producing mixing 1,000 to 10,000 times that of the surrounding slow-moving water.
“Oceanographers used to talk about the so-called ‘dark mixing’ problem, where they knew that there should be a certain amount of turbulence in the deep ocean, and yet every time they made a measurement they observed a tenth of that,” Alford said. “We found there’s loads and loads of turbulence in the Samoan Passage, and detailed measurements show it’s due to breaking waves.”
It turns out layers of water flowing over two consecutive ridges form a lee wave, like those in air that passes over mountains. These waves become unstable and turbulent, and break. Thus the deepest water, the densest in the world, mixes with upper layers and disappears.
This mixing helps explain why dense, cold water doesn’t permanently pool at the bottom of the ocean and instead rises as part of a global conveyor-belt circulation pattern.
The Samoan Passage is important because it mixes so much water, but similar processes happen in other places, Alford said. Better knowledge of deep-ocean mixing could help simulate global currents and place instruments to track any changes.
On a lighter note: Could an intrepid surfer ride these killer deep-sea waves?
“It would be really boring,” admitted Alford, who is a surfer. “The waves can take an hour to break, and I think most surfers are not going to wait that long for one wave.”
In fact, even making the measurements was painstaking work. Instruments took 1.5 hours to lower to the seafloor, and the ship traveled at only a half knot, slower than a person walking, during the 30-hour casts. New technology let the scientists measure turbulence directly and make measurements from instruments lowered more than 3 miles off the side of the ship.
The researchers left instruments recording long-term measurements. The team will do another 40-day cruise in January to collect those instruments and map currents flowing through various gaps in the intricate channel.
Co-authors of the paper are James Girton, Gunnar Voet and John Mickett at the UW Applied Physics Lab; Glenn Carter at the University of Hawaii; and Jody Klymak at the University of Victoria. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.
For more information, contact Alford at 206-221-3257 or email@example.com. Note: Alford will be traveling Sept. 13-20 and best reached via e-mail.
Hannah Hickey | EurekAlert!
In times of climate change: What a lake’s colour can tell about its condition
21.09.2017 | Leibniz-Institut für Gewässerökologie und Binnenfischerei (IGB)
Did marine sponges trigger the ‘Cambrian explosion’ through ‘ecosystem engineering’?
21.09.2017 | Helmholtz-Zentrum Potsdam - Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum GFZ
At the productronica trade fair in Munich this November, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be presenting Laser-Based Tape-Automated Bonding, LaserTAB for short. The experts from Aachen will be demonstrating how new battery cells and power electronics can be micro-welded more efficiently and precisely than ever before thanks to new optics and robot support.
Fraunhofer ILT from Aachen relies on a clever combination of robotics and a laser scanner with new optics as well as process monitoring, which it has developed...
Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.
A warming planet
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.
The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...
Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...
Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!
When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...
19.09.2017 | Event News
12.09.2017 | Event News
06.09.2017 | Event News
25.09.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering
25.09.2017 | Health and Medicine
25.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy