April 16, 2010

Red Flags in the Ocean

There's bad news in the oceans -- and I'm not talking about the Pacific Garbage Patch or the bluefin tuna (NSF via Brad Johnson on Twitter).

Current observational tools cannot account for roughly half of the heat that is believed to have built up on Earth in recent years, according to a "Perspectives" article in this week's issue of the journal Science.

Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., warn that satellite sensors, ocean floats, and other instruments are inadequate to track this "missing" heat, which may be building up in the deep oceans or elsewhere in the climate system.

"The heat will come back to haunt us sooner or later," says NCAR scientist Kevin Trenberth, the article's lead author.

"The reprieve we've had from warming temperatures in the last few years will not continue. It is critical to track the build-up of energy in our climate system so we can understand what is happening and predict our future climate."

The authors suggest that last year's rapid onset of El Nino, the periodic event in which upper ocean waters across much of the tropical Pacific Ocean become significantly warmer, may be one way in which the solar energy has reappeared.

The article goes on to point out that we really need to understand where that missing heat is before we start hacking the planet.

But then there's this (via MoJo's Blue Marble):

A new study (pdf) shows a warming globe is intensifying Earth's water cycle, making arid regions drier and high rainfall regions wetter. It also finds a clear link between warming-driven salinity changes at the ocean's surface and changes underwater that match the pathways surface waters take into the deep ocean.

The changes in the water cycle mean that the ocean beneath rainy regions of the globe has freshened, while the ocean in areas dominated by evaporation have grown saltier. The paper also confirms that surface warming of the world’s oceans over the past 50 years has penetrated into the oceans' interior, changing deep-ocean salinity patterns.

Salinity affects the speed, direction, and depth of ocean currents.

The ocean's role as a massive heat exchanger is a central form of climate control for the planet. The fact that 1) we don't really understand what it's doing with all the excess heat we're pumping to it and 2) we're already causing pretty significant alternations to it makes me more than a touch nervous. It turns out we're already hacking the planet and we don't seem to be very good at it...

Photo credit: Duncan Rawlinson

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Anonymous Duncan said...

Hi there,

Thank you for for using my photograph in this post!

Please attribute the photograph to Duncan Rawlinson and link to me @

Thank you.

Anonymous Duncan said...


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