Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Wind shifts may stir CO2 from Antarctic depths

13.03.2009
Releases may have speeded end of last ice age -- and could act again

Natural releases of carbon dioxide from the Southern Ocean due to shifting wind patterns could have amplified global warming at the end of the last ice age--and could be repeated as manmade warming proceeds, a new paper in the journal Science suggests.

Many scientists think that the end of the last ice age was triggered by a change in Earth's orbit that caused the northern part of the planet to warm. This partial climate shift was accompanied by rising levels of the greenhouse gas CO2, ice core records show, which could have intensified the warming around the globe. A team of scientists at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory now offers one explanation for the mysterious rise in CO2: the orbital shift triggered a southward displacement in westerly winds, which caused heavy mixing in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, pumping dissolved carbon dioxide from the water into the air.

"The faster the ocean turns over, the more deep water rises to the surface to release CO2," said lead author Robert Anderson, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty. "It's this rate of overturning that regulates CO2 in the atmosphere." In the last 40 years, the winds have shifted south much as they did 17,000 years ago, said Anderson. If they end up venting more CO2 into the air, manmade warming underway now could be intensified.

Scientists have been studying the oceans for more than 25 years to understand their influence on CO2 levels and the glacial cycles that have periodically heated and chilled the planet for more than 600,000 years. Ice cores show that the ends of other ice ages also were marked by rises in CO2.

Two years ago, J.R. Toggweiler, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), proposed that westerly winds in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica may have undergone a major shift at the end of the last ice age. This shift would have raised more CO2-rich deep water to the surface, and thus amplified warming already taking place due to the earth's new orbital position. Anderson and his colleagues are the first to test that theory by studying sediments from the bottom of the Southern Ocean to measure the rate of overturning.

The scientists say that changes in the westerlies may have been triggered by two competing events in the northern hemisphere about 17,000 years ago. The earth's orbit shifted, causing more sunlight to fall in the north, partially melting the ice sheets that then covered parts of the United States, Canada and Europe. Paradoxically, the melting may also have spurred sea-ice formation in the North Atlantic Ocean, creating a cooling effect there. Both events would have caused the westerly winds to shift south, toward the Southern Ocean. The winds simultaneously warmed Antarctica and stirred the waters around it. The resulting upwelling of CO2 would have caused the entire globe to heat.

Anderson and his colleagues measured the rate of upwelling by analyzing sediment cores from the Southern Ocean. When deep water is vented, it brings not only CO2 to the surface but nutrients. Phytoplankton consume the extra nutrients and multiply.

In the cores, Anderson and his colleagues say spikes in plankton growth between roughly 17,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago indicate added upwelling. By comparing those spikes with ice core records, the scientists realized the added upwelling coincided with hotter temperatures in Antarctica as well as rising CO2 levels.

In the same issue of Science, Toggweiler writes a column commenting on the work. "Now I think this really starts to lock up how the CO2 changed globally," he said in an interview. "Here's a mechanism that can explain the warming of Antarctica and the rise in CO2. It's being forced by the north, via this change in the winds."

At least one model supports the evidence. Richard Matear, a researcher at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, describes a scenario in which winds shift south and produce an increase in CO2 venting in the Southern Ocean. Plants, which incorporate CO2 during photosynthesis, are unable to absorb all the added nutrients, causing atmospheric CO2 to rise.

Some other climate models disagree. In those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the westerly winds do not simply shift north-south. "It's more complicated than this," said Axel Timmermann, a climate modeler at the University of Hawaii. Even if the winds did shift south, Timmermann argues, upwelling in the Southern Ocean would not have raised CO2 levels in the air. Instead, he says, the intensification of the westerlies would have increased upwelling and plant growth in the Southeastern Pacific, and this would have absorbed enough atmospheric CO2 to compensate for the added upwelling in the Southern Ocean.

"Differences among model results illustrate a critical need for further research," said Anderson. These, include "measurements that document the ongoing physical and biogeochemical changes in the Southern Ocean, and improvements in the models used to simulate these processes and project their impact on atmospheric CO2 levels over the next century."

Anderson says that if his theory is correct, the impact of upwelling "will be dwarfed by the accelerating rate at which humans are burning fossil fuels." But, he said, "It could well be large enough to offset some of the mitigation strategies that are being proposed to counteract rising CO2, so it should not be neglected."

Kim Martineau | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.columbia.edu

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht First evidence of surprising ocean warming around Galápagos corals
22.02.2018 | University of Arizona

nachricht World's first solar fuels reactor for night passes test
21.02.2018 | SolarPACES

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Developing reliable quantum computers

International research team makes important step on the path to solving certification problems

Quantum computers may one day solve algorithmic problems which even the biggest supercomputers today can’t manage. But how do you test a quantum computer to...

Im Focus: In best circles: First integrated circuit from self-assembled polymer

For the first time, a team of researchers at the Max-Planck Institute (MPI) for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany, has succeeded in making an integrated circuit (IC) from just a monolayer of a semiconducting polymer via a bottom-up, self-assembly approach.

In the self-assembly process, the semiconducting polymer arranges itself into an ordered monolayer in a transistor. The transistors are binary switches used...

Im Focus: Demonstration of a single molecule piezoelectric effect

Breakthrough provides a new concept of the design of molecular motors, sensors and electricity generators at nanoscale

Researchers from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the CAS (IOCB Prague), Institute of Physics of the CAS (IP CAS) and Palacký University...

Im Focus: Hybrid optics bring color imaging using ultrathin metalenses into focus

For photographers and scientists, lenses are lifesavers. They reflect and refract light, making possible the imaging systems that drive discovery through the microscope and preserve history through cameras.

But today's glass-based lenses are bulky and resist miniaturization. Next-generation technologies, such as ultrathin cameras or tiny microscopes, require...

Im Focus: Stem cell divisions in the adult brain seen for the first time

Scientists from the University of Zurich have succeeded for the first time in tracking individual stem cells and their neuronal progeny over months within the intact adult brain. This study sheds light on how new neurons are produced throughout life.

The generation of new nerve cells was once thought to taper off at the end of embryonic development. However, recent research has shown that the adult brain...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

2nd International Conference on High Temperature Shape Memory Alloys (HTSMAs)

15.02.2018 | Event News

Aachen DC Grid Summit 2018

13.02.2018 | Event News

How Global Climate Policy Can Learn from the Energy Transition

12.02.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Stiffness matters

22.02.2018 | Life Sciences

Magnetic field traces gas and dust swirling around supermassive black hole

22.02.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

First evidence of surprising ocean warming around Galápagos corals

22.02.2018 | Earth Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>