Though climate scientists have long debated the reasons behind the variation in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide that occur over lengthy periods in Earth's history, the Princeton team may have found a clue to where the answer can be found. In a new research paper, the team reveals that the waters in the Southern Ocean below 60 degrees south latitude, the region that hugs the continent of Antarctica, play a far more significant role than was previously thought in regulating atmospheric carbon, and -- in contrast to past theories -- the waters north of this region do comparably little to regulate it.
"Cold water that wells up regularly from the depths of the Southern Ocean spreads out on the ocean's surface along both sides of this dividing line, and we have found that the water performs two very different functions depending on which side of the line it flows toward," said Irina Marinov, the study's lead author. "While the water north of the line generally spreads nutrients throughout the world's oceans, the second, southward-flowing stream soaks up carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the air. Such a sharply-defined difference in function has surprised us. It could mean that a change to one side of the cycle might not affect the other as much as we once suspected."
The research team, which also includes Princeton's Jorge Sarmiento as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Anand Gnanadesikan and Robbie Toggweiler, will publish their results in today's (June 22) issue of the scientific journal, Nature. Marinov, who led the study while working in Sarmiento's lab, is currently pursuing postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a NOAA Fellow in Climate and Global Change.
The Southern Ocean has long been of interest to scientists, who have found that it influences the rest of the planet in many ways. Two years ago, Sarmiento's research team discovered that the nutrients in the world's oceans were dependent on the Southern Ocean's circulation pattern, but had not realized how the pattern affected the atmospheric carbon cycle.
Scientists have also been aware that cold Antarctic waters have the ability to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, which could make the region one of the planet's lines of defense against rising greenhouse gas levels. These and other effects the Southern Ocean has on the Earth are not themselves new to science, but distinctions between one effect and another have been difficult to draw.
"The new paper shows that carbon dioxide and nutrient flow are separated quite dramatically," said Sarmiento, a professor of geosciences. "What we are trying to do is understand better the balance of forces that help our planet maintain a steady environmental state, so we can anticipate what might cause that state to change. This paper helps us clarify how those forces interact."
Changing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have long concerned the scientific community, as this well-known greenhouse gas could be a major influence on global warming. Marinov said the discovery could shed light on how the Earth reacted far back in history, which might offer clues to how it will behave in the future.
"In the last ice age, for example, the atmosphere experienced very low levels of carbon dioxide, and no one is completely sure why," she said. "However, we now understand the Southern Ocean plays a large role in regulating how much of the gas gets dissolved in water, and how much remains in the atmosphere."
The current study, she said, indicates that to better understand the Southern Ocean's effect on atmospheric carbon, scientists should pay greater attention to the Antarctic than to the more northerly sub-Antarctic region.
"In the Antarctic, the circulation pattern moves the surface water carrying carbon dioxide deep into the ocean's depths, where the sequestered carbon could potentially be trapped for a long time," Marinov said. "According to the models we used, the deep Antarctic is the critical region where we need to concentrate our research."
The team also indicated that the findings had implications for future research into carbon sequestration, a strategy for coping with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Some scientists propose that sequestration could one day capture atmospheric carbon and store it in places such as the deep ocean, thus mitigating humanity's greenhouse gas emissions.
"An interesting idea of recent years is that we can sequester a lot of carbon if we dump iron into the ocean to encourage the growth of certain microorganisms, which incorporate carbon as they grow," Marinov said. "These organisms would then fall to the ocean floor after they die, taking the carbon with them. The overall effect would be to lower concentration of carbon in the surface waters, allowing more atmospheric carbon dioxide to dissolve into the sea. Our research has implications for future iron fertilization experiments, the focus of which we conclude should shift to the Antarctic."
Marinov said that the findings were based strongly on the team's computer models, which have limitations that they will now concentrate on eliminating.
"While we are confident about the paper's conclusions, we are always looking for ways to clarify our understanding of the Southern Ocean," she said. "Our model, for example, does not take into account the fact that the circulation patterns are strongest in the winter, when the Antarctic is covered in darkness and the phytoplankton cannot grow very much. It is important that we understand the impact of this process on atmospheric carbon dioxide through future research."
This research was sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Energy and NOAA's Postdoctoral Program in Climate and Global Change, administered by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. The Princeton team worked closely with NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab, which is affiliated with Princeton through the graduate program in atmospheric and oceanic sciences. Climate research at Princeton is strongly enriched by the relationship with researchers in the laboratory on the Forrestal Campus, who collaborate on research, supervise Princeton graduate students and teach University courses.Abstract
Chad Boutin | EurekAlert!
UCI and NASA document accelerated glacier melting in West Antarctica
26.10.2016 | University of California - Irvine
Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere
25.10.2016 | American Geophysical Union
Physicists from the University of Würzburg have designed a light source that emits photon pairs. Two-photon sources are particularly well suited for tap-proof data encryption. The experiment's key ingredients: a semiconductor crystal and some sticky tape.
So-called monolayers are at the heart of the research activities. These "super materials" (as the prestigious science magazine "Nature" puts it) have been...
Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.
This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...
Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion
Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...
Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.
"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...
In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.
A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...
14.10.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
12.10.2016 | Event News
28.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering
28.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy
28.10.2016 | Life Sciences