Oceans

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions would help spare cities worldwide from rising seas

BOULDER, Colo. — Coastal cities worldwide would face a reduced threat from sea level rise if society reduced greenhouse gas emissions, with especially significant benefits for New York and other U.S. East Coast cities, new research indicates.The study, by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), used a powerful computer model to tease out the ways that winds and currents in a warming world push ocean water around, lifting it in some regions and lowering it in others. The scientists examined how these variations in sea level rise would change under two conditions: if emissions continue on their current trajectory, or if they are sharply reduced.The results showed that, if society can implement cuts soon on emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, the projected increases in sea level around the globe would be significantly less toward the end of the century. This would help coastal cities in much of the world as they try to fend off rising waters, with the benefits most pronounced for cities on parts of the Atlantic and Indian oceans.Projected sea level rise for major cities worldwide will vary significantly later this century, depending on whether society continues to increase emissions of greenhouse gases at the current rate (a scenario known as RCP 8.5) or begins to sharply reduce them (RCP 4.5). Some cities, such as New York and London, would see particularly pronounced benefits if society cuts emissions. For more details on the range of projected sea level rise for major cities, click on the graphic or see table below. (Graphic by Simmi Sinha, ©UCAR. Click to enlarge. This graphic is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)  "Mitigating greenhouse gases will reduce sea level rise later this century, with some regions seeing especially significant benefits," said NCAR scientist Aixue Hu, the lead author of the new study. "As city officials prepare for sea level rise, they can factor in the compounding effect of local conditions, which are due to the winds and currents that cause internal variability in the oceans."Hu and his co-author, NCAR scientist Susan Bates, caution that the modeling study presents an incomplete picture, because it does not include runoff from melting ice sheets and glaciers — two factors that scientists are just now incorporating into computer models. Instead, it simulates the influence of climate change on variations in sea level worldwide to reveal which coastlines will benefit most from emission reductions associated with the additional heat absorbed by the ocean.The study, published this month in the journal Nature Communications, was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and by the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR's sponsor.Global changes with local impactsSea level rise is one of the most consequential impacts of climate change, threatening to swamp low-lying islands and major coastal cities. Sea levels in some regions are expected to rise by several feet by the end of this century, due to a combination of melting ice sheets and glaciers (which account for about two-thirds of sea level rise) along with thermal expansion, or ocean waters expanding as they warm (which accounts for the remaining one-third).To study how changes in emissions would affect global sea level rise and local variations, Hu and Bates used two sets of computer simulations that are based on two different greenhouse gas scenarios.In the business-as-usual scenario, with emissions from human activity continuing to increase at current rates, global temperatures by late this century would rise by about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) over late 20th century levels. In the moderate mitigation scenario, with society taking steps to reduce greenhouse gases, warming would be held to about 3.2 degrees F (1.8 degrees C).The scientists found that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would not significantly restrain sea level rise for the next two decades. The reason, in part, has to do with the inertia of the climate system (once heat enters the oceans, it is retained for a period of time). In addition, winds and currents are naturally variable from year to year, pushing ocean water in different directions and making it hard to discern the full impact of planet-scale warming over the span of a decade or two.But the scientists found that later in the century, from 2061 to 2080, reduced emissions would have a significant impact across almost the entire world. The simulations showed that the extent of mean global sea level rise from thermal heat expansion (but not runoff from melting ice) was reduced by about 25 percent, from about 17.8 centimeters (7 inches) in the business-as-usual scenario to 13.2 centimeters (5.2 inches) in the moderate mitigation scenario.Locally, winds and currents make a differenceFor some cities, the benefits of the lower-emission scenario would be especially significant. New York City, where sea levels this century are expected to rise more than almost anywhere else in the world, would see a difference of 9.8 centimeters (3.9 inches). Other cities that would see a greater-than-average reduction include Boston (9.3 cm/3.7 in), London (8.3 cm/3.3 in), Dar es Salaam (6.8 cm/2.7 in), Miami (6.5 cm/2.6 in), and Mumbai (5.8 cm/2.3 in).On the other hand, some cities in South America (such as Buenos Aires), Asia (such as Bangkok and Jakarta), Australia (such as Melbourne), and the west coast of North America (such as Vancouver and San Francisco) would see lower-than-average benefits. And reducing greenhouse gases would have no statistically significant effect on sea level rise along the western coasts of Australia and the Philippines.The reason for the local differences in sea level rise has to do with the influence (or lack thereof) of a changing climate on major currents and on atmosphere-ocean interactions around the globe.In the northern Atlantic, for example, warming temperatures are expected to weaken the Gulf Stream that transports warmer water from the subtropics to the Arctic. The powerful current draws water away from much of the east coast of the United States, and scientists have warned that a weakening current would send those waters back toward the coastline and significantly raise sea levels. If actions taken by society resulted in reduced emissions, the Gulf Stream would be less affected and, therefore, sea level rise in the north Atlantic would be less substantial.In contrast, the currents in some other ocean basins appear to be less sensitive to climate change. Across much of the Pacific, for example, sea levels are influenced by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a phenomenon related to winds and sea surface temperatures. Although climate change is affecting winds and causing sea surface temperatures to rise in the Pacific, it is not disrupting currents there as much as it is in the northern Atlantic. As a result, climate change mitigation that reduces thermal expansion would generally have a less significant effect on Pacific sea levels.The study also found greater variations in future sea level rise in different regions, including some cities where local sea levels are influenced by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation or by an Atlantic climate pattern known as the North Atlantic Oscillation. As a result, the projected sea level rise in the model varied more for London and Tokyo than for New York."City planners in some places will be able to make decisions based on more certain sea level projections, but for other places it's going to be more difficult to know what the sea levels will be," Bates said.About the paperTitle: Internal climate variability and projected future regional steric and dynamic sea level rise
Authors: Aixue Hu and Susan BatesJournal: Nature CommunicationsNew research estimates the extent to which sea level rise would be reduced for major cities worldwide by later this century if society cuts emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. These tables incorporates projections based on the thermal expansion of ocean water as well as on the localized impacts of winds and currents, but they do not include additional sea level rise caused by the melting of ice sheets and glaciers. (Data produced by Aixue Hu and Susan Bates, NCAR. Graphic by Simmi Sinha, UCAR. Click to enlarge. This graphic is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)

The rate of sea level rise is accelerating, a new study finds

NCAR scientist John Fasullo is a co-author of a new study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. The study finds that the rate of sea level rise is accelerating. The following is an excerpt from a news release by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. February 13, 2018 | Global sea level rise is not cruising along at a steady 3 mm per year. It’s accelerating a little every year, according to a new study that harnessed 25 years of satellite data to calculate that the rate is increasing by about 0.08 mm/year every year — which could mean an annual rate of sea level rise of 10 mm/year, or even more, by 2100.“This acceleration, driven mainly by accelerated melting in Greenland and Antarctica, has the potential to double the total sea level rise by 2100 as compared to projections that assume a constant rate—to more than 60 cm instead of about 30.” said lead author Steve Nerem, a scientists at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. "And this is almost certainly a conservative estimate," he added. "Our extrapolation assumes that sea level continues to change in the future as it has over the last 25 years. Given the large changes we are seeing in the ice sheets today, that's not likely."If the oceans continue to change at this pace, sea level will rise 65cm (26 inches) by 2100—enough to cause significant problems for coastal cities, according to the new assessment by Nerem and several colleagues from CU Boulder, the University of South Florida, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Old Dominion University, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The team, driven to understand and better predict Earth’s response to a warming world, published their work today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.Rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere increase the temperature of air and water, which causes sea level to rise in two ways. First, warmer water expands, and this "thermal expansion" of the oceans has contributed about half of the 7 cm of global mean sea level rise we've seen over the last 25 years, Nerem said. Second, melting land ice flows into the ocean, also increasing sea level across the globe.These increases were measured using satellite altimeter measurements since 1992, including the U.S./European TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1, Jason-2, and Jason-3 satellite missions. But detecting acceleration is challenging, even in such a long record. Episodes like volcanic eruptions can create variability: the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 decreased global mean sea level just before the Topex/Poseidon satellite launch, for example. In addition, global sea level can fluctuate due to climate patterns such as El Niños and La Niñas (the opposing phases of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO) which influence ocean temperature and global precipitation patterns.Read the full news release here. 

Future volcanic eruptions could cause more climate disruption

BOULDER, Colo. — Major volcanic eruptions in the future have the potential to affect global temperatures and precipitation more dramatically than in the past because of climate change, according to a new study led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The study authors focused on the cataclysmic eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora in April 1815, which is thought to have triggered the so-called "year without a summer" in 1816. They found that if a similar eruption occurred in the year 2085, temperatures would plunge more deeply, although not enough to offset the future warming associated with climate change. The increased cooling after a future eruption would also disrupt the water cycle more severely, decreasing the amount of precipitation that falls globally. The reason for the difference in climate response between 1815 and 2085 is tied to the oceans, which are expected to become more stratified as the planet warms, and therefore less able to moderate the climate impacts caused by volcanic eruptions. "We discovered that the oceans play a very large role in moderating, while also lengthening, the surface cooling induced by the 1815 eruption," said NCAR scientist John Fasullo, lead author of the new study. "The volcanic kick is just that — it's a cooling kick that lasts for a year or so. But the oceans change the timescale. They act to not only dampen the initial cooling but also to spread it out over several years." The research was published today in the journal Nature Communications. The work was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, NCAR's sponsor. Other funders include NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy. The study co-authors are Robert Tomas, Samantha Stevenson, Bette Otto-Bliesner, and Esther Brady, all of NCAR, as well as Eugene Wahl, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.An aerial view of Mount Tambora's caldera, formed during the 1815 eruption. (Image credit: Wikipedia.) A detailed look at a deadly pastMount Tambora's eruption, the largest in the past several centuries, spewed a huge amount of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, where it turned into sulfate particles called aerosols. The layer of light-reflecting aerosols cooled Earth, setting in motion a chain of reactions that led to an extremely cold summer in 1816, especially across Europe and the northeast of North America. The "year without a summer" is blamed for widespread crop failure and disease, causing more than 100,000 deaths globally. To better understand and quantify the climate effects of Mount Tambora's eruption and to explore how those effects might differ for a future eruption if climate change continues on its current trajectory, the research team turned to a sophisticated computer model developed by scientists from NCAR and the broader community. The scientists looked at two sets of simulations from the Community Earth System Model. The first was taken from the CESM Last Millennium Ensemble Project, which simulates Earth's climate from the year 850 through 2005, including volcanic eruptions in the historic record. The second set, which assumes that greenhouse gas emission continue unabated, was created by running CESM forward and repeating a hypothetical Mount Tambora eruption in 2085. The historical model simulations revealed that two countervailing processes helped regulate Earth's temperature after Tambora's eruption. As aerosols in the stratosphere began blocking some of the Sun's heat, this cooling was intensified by an increase in the amount of land covered by snow and ice, which reflected heat back to space. At the same time, the oceans served as an important counterbalance. As the surface of the oceans cooled, the colder water sank, allowing warmer water to rise and release more heat into the atmosphere. By the time the oceans themselves had cooled substantially, the aerosol layer had begun to dissipate, allowing more of the Sun's heat to again reach Earth's surface. At that point, the ocean took on the opposite role, keeping the atmosphere cooler, since the oceans take much longer to warm back up than land. "In our model runs, we found that Earth actually reached its minimum temperature the following year, when the aerosols were almost gone," Fasullo said. "It turns out the aerosols did not need to stick around for an entire year to still have a year without a summer in 1816, since by then the oceans had cooled substantially."The oceans in a changed climateWhen the scientists studied how the climate in 2085 would respond to a hypothetical eruption that mimicked Mount Tambora's, they found that Earth would experience a similar increase in land area covered by snow and ice. However, the ocean's ability to moderate the cooling would be diminished substantially in 2085. As a result, the magnitude of Earth's surface cooling could be as much as 40 percent greater in the future. The scientists caution, however, that the exact magnitude is difficult to quantify since they had only a relatively small number of simulations of the future eruption. The reason for the change has to do with a more stratified ocean. As the climate warms, sea surface temperatures increase. The warmer water at the ocean's surface is then less able to mix with the colder, denser water below. In the model runs, this increase in ocean stratification meant that the water that was cooled after the volcanic eruption became trapped at the surface instead of mixing deeper into the ocean, reducing the heat released into the atmosphere. The scientists also found that the future eruption would have a larger effect on rainfall than the historical eruption of Mount Tambora. Cooler sea surface temperatures decrease the amount of water that evaporates into the atmosphere and, therefore, also decrease global average precipitation. Though the study found that Earth's response to a Tambora-like eruption would be more acute in the future than in the past, the scientists note that the average surface cooling caused by the 2085 eruption (about 1.1 degrees Celsius) would not be nearly enough to offset the warming caused by human-induced climate change (about 4.2 degrees Celsius by 2085). Study co-author Otto-Bliesner said, "The response of the climate system to the 1815 eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora gives us a perspective on potential surprises for the future, but with the twist that our climate system may respond much differently."About the article:Title: The amplifying influence of increased ocean stratification on a future year without a summer Authors: J.T. Fasullo, R. Tomas, S. Stevenson, B. Otto-Bliesner, E. Brady, and E. Wahl Journal: Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01302-z

Decades of data on world's oceans reveal a troubling oxygen decline

NCAR scientist Matthew Long is a co-author of a new study appearing in Geophysical Research Letters. This is an excerpt from a news release by Georgia Tech, a UCAR member institution. May 11, 2017 | A new analysis of decades of data on oceans across the globe has revealed that the amount of dissolved oxygen contained in the water – an important measure of ocean health – has been declining for more than 20 years.Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology looked at a historic dataset of ocean information stretching back more than 50 years and searched for long term trends and patterns. They found that oxygen levels started dropping in the 1980s as ocean temperatures began to climb.“The oxygen in oceans has dynamic properties, and its concentration can change with natural climate variability,” said Taka Ito, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences who led the research. “The important aspect of our result is that the rate of global oxygen loss appears to be exceeding the level of nature's random variability.”The study, which was published April in Geophysical Research Letters, was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The team included researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Washington-Seattle, and Hokkaido University in Japan.Read the full news release from Georgia Tech.Global map of the linear trend of dissolved oxygen at the depth of 100 meters. (Image courtesy Georgia Tech.) About the articleTitle: Upper ocean O2 trends: 1958–2015Authors: Takamitsu Ito, Shoshiro Minobe, Matthew C. Long, and Curtis DeutschJournal: Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1002/2017GL073613

New estimate of ocean heat finds more warming

March 10, 2017 | The oceans may be storing 13 percent more heat than previously estimated, according to a new study co-authored by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).The finding, published in the journal Science Advances, is based on a new analysis of how ocean temperatures have changed since 1960. The research team, led by Lijing Cheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, compared their results to estimates published in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013."In other words, the planet is warming quite a lot more than we thought," said NCAR scientist Kevin Trenberth, a study co-author.The vast majority of excess heat trapped on Earth by greenhouse gas emissions — about 90 percent — is stored in the oceans, but measuring how the heat content of the oceans has changed over time has been a challenge due to sparse observations.The deployment of an Argo float off a research vessel. Data collected from Argo floats were used to validate a new estimate of ocean heat content. (Image courtesy of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.)Historically, the temperature of ocean waters was measured by a variety of ships, but this limited observations to areas where ships traveled. In more recent decades, measurements of ocean heat have increased, thanks to new observational techniques. In 2000, scientists began deploying a network of thousands of floats called Argo to profile conditions in the top layer of the ocean extending down 2,000 meters (6,562 feet). Argo achieved near global coverage in 2005, though some remote regions are still not sampled.To fill the large gaps in the historical ocean temperature record, the research team used a combination of statistical techniques and model output to determine how useful a single observation can be for inferring information about the surrounding area, as well as how the temperatures in different parts of the world's oceans relate to one another. They found that, in most regions, a single ocean observation could provide valuable information about conditions as far as 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) away.To check if they were correct, they used Argo observations. At first, they chose data from only a small number of floats in the network to mimic the scarcity of observations that would have been available in the mid-20th century. Then they used their new technique to create an entire ocean temperature map based on those few observations. When they checked their map against the full complement of Argo observations, they found that their reconstruction tracked closely with reality. "The results were remarkable," Trenberth said. "They give us much more confidence about what the ocean heat content was, stretching back to the late 1950s."The results allowed the team to estimate the total warming between 1960 and 2005 to be 337 zettajoules (a measure of energy). They also found that changes were small until 1980, when the amount of heat stored in the oceans began to steadily increase. Since 1990, significant amounts of heat have begun to seep deeper into the ocean layers. NCAR scientist and co-author John Fasullo said the study also highlights the impact of improved observations and models, which are giving scientists important insights into what the world once looked like."Science not only looks toward the future, but is also continually trying to make sense of the past," he said. "This work is an example of how advances in technology have enabled an improved understanding of past changes in the ocean, where variability has always been a bit of an enigma due to its vastness and depth. The insights associated with this work change not only our understanding of past climate but also how future changes might unfold."The other co-authors are Tim Boyer, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; John Abraham, of the University of St. Thomas; and Jiang Zhu, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.About the articleTitle: Improved estimates of ocean heat content from 1960 to 2015Authors: Lijing Cheng, Kevin Trenberth, John Fasullo, Tim Boyer, John Abraham, and Jiang ZhuJournal: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601545Writer/contactLaura Snider, Senior Science Writer and Public Information Officer FundersChinese Academy of SciencesNational Science Foundation of ChinaU.S. Department of EnergyNational Science FoundationNASA CollaboratorsChinese Academy of SciencesNational Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationUniversity of St. Thomas

Climate change already accelerating sea level rise, study finds

BOULDER, Colo. — Greenhouse gases are already having an accelerating effect on sea level rise, but the impact has so far been masked by the cataclysmic 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, according to a new study led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).Satellite observations, which began in 1993, indicate that the rate of sea level rise has held fairly steady at about 3 millimeters per year. But the expected acceleration due to climate change is likely hidden in the satellite record because of a happenstance of timing: The record began soon after the Pinatubo eruption, which temporarily cooled the planet, causing sea levels to drop.The new study finds that the lower starting point effectively distorts the calculation of sea level rise acceleration for the last couple of decades.The study lends support to climate model projections, which show the rate of sea level rise escalating over time as the climate warms. The findings were published today in the open-access Nature journal Scientific Reports.Mount Pinatubo's caldera on June 22, 1991. (Image courtesy USGS.)"When we used climate model runs designed to remove the effect of the Pinatubo eruption, we saw the rate of sea level rise accelerating in our simulations," said NCAR scientist John Fasullo, who led the study. "Now that the impacts of Pinatubo have faded, this acceleration should become evident in the satellite measurements in the coming decade, barring another major volcanic eruption."Study co-author Steve Nerem, from the University of Colorado Boulder, added: “This study shows that large volcanic eruptions can significantly impact the satellite record of global average sea level change. So we must be careful to consider these effects when we look for the effects of climate change in the satellite-based sea level record."The findings have implications for the extent of sea level rise this century and may be useful to coastal communities planning for the future. In recent years, decision makers have debated whether these communities should make plans based on the steady rate of sea level rise measured in recent decades or based on the accelerated rate expected in the future by climate scientists.The study was funded by NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR's sponsor.Reconstructing a pre-Pinatubo worldClimate change triggers sea level rise in a couple of ways: by warming the ocean, which causes the water to expand, and by melting glaciers and ice sheets, which drain into the ocean and increase its volume. In recent decades, the pace of warming and melting has accelerated, and scientists have expected to see a corresponding increase in the rate of sea level rise. But analysis of the relatively short satellite record has not borne that out.To investigate, Fasullo, Nerem, and Benjamin Hamlington of Old Dominion University worked to pin down how quickly sea levels were rising in the decades before the satellite record began.Prior to the launch of the international TOPEX/Poseidon satellite mission in late 1992, sea level was mainly measured using tide gauges. While records from some gauges stretch back to the 18th century, variations in measurement technique and location mean that the pre-satellite record is best used to get a ballpark estimate of global mean sea level.Mount Pinatubo erupting in 1991. (Image courtesy USGS.)To complement the historic record, the research team used a dataset produced by running the NCAR-based Community Earth System Model 40 times with slightly different—but historically plausible—starting conditions. The resulting simulations characterize the range of natural variability in the factors that affect sea levels. The model was run on the Yellowstone system at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center.A separate set of model runs that omitted volcanic aerosols — particles spewed into the atmosphere by an eruption — was also assessed. By comparing the two sets of runs, the scientists were able to pick out a signal (in this case, the impact of Mount Pinatubo's eruption) from the noise (natural variations in ocean temperature and other factors that affect sea level)."You can't do it with one or two model runs—or even three or four," Fasullo said. "There's just too much accompanying climate noise to understand precisely what the effect of Pinatubo was. We could not have done it without large numbers of runs."Using models to understand observationsAnalyzing the simulations, the research team found that Pinatubo's eruption caused the oceans to cool and sea levels to drop by about 6 millimeters immediately before TOPEX/Poseidon began recording observations.As the sunlight-blocking aerosols from Mount Pinatubo dissipated in the simulations, sea levels began to slowly rebound to pre-eruption levels. This rebound swamped the acceleration caused by the warming climate and made the rate of sea level rise higher in the mid- to late 1990s than it would otherwise have been.This higher-than-normal rate of sea level rise in the early part of the satellite record makes it appear that the rate of sea level rise has not accelerated over time and may actually have decreased somewhat. In fact, according to the study, if the Pinatubo eruption had not occurred—leaving sea level at a higher starting point in the early 1990s—the satellite record would have shown a clear acceleration."The satellite record is unable to account for everything that happened before the first satellite was launched, " Fasullo said. "This study is a great example of how computer models can give us the historical context that's needed to understand some of what we're seeing in the satellite record."Understanding whether the rate of sea level rise is accelerating or remaining constant is important because it drastically changes what sea levels might look like in 20, 50, or 100 years.“These scientists have disentangled the major role played by the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo on trends in global mean sea level,” said Anjuli Bamzai, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which funded the research.  “This research is vital as society prepares for the potential effects of climate change."Because the study's findings suggest that acceleration due to climate change is already under way, the acceleration should become evident in the satellite record in the coming decade, Fasullo said.Since the original TOPEX/Poseidon mission, other satellites have been launched—Jason-1 in 2001 and Jason-2 in 2008—to continue tracking sea levels. The most recent satellite, Jason-3, launched on Jan. 17 of this year."Sea level rise is potentially one of the most damaging impacts of climate change, so it's critical that we understand how quickly it will rise in the future," Fasullo said. "Measurements from Jason-3 will help us evaluate what we've learned in this study and help us better plan for the future."The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under sponsorship by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.The graph shows how sea level rises and falls as ocean heat content fluctuates. After volcanic eruptions, the Earth cools and, in turn, the heat content in the ocean drops, ultimately lowering sea level.The solid blue line is the average sea level rise of climate model simulations that include volcanic eruptions. The green line is the average from model simulations with the effect of volcanic eruptions removed, and it shows a smooth acceleration in the rate of sea level rise due to climate change.The blue line between the start of the satellite record and present day makes a relatively straight line — just as we see from actual satellite observations during that time —  indicating that the rate of sea level rise has not accelerated. But in the future, barring another major volcanic eruption, scientists expect sea level to follow the gray dotted line, which is on the same accelerating path as the green line below it. Click to enlarge. (©UCAR. This graph is freely available for media & nonprofit use.) About the articleTitle: Is the detection of sea level rise imminent?Authors: J.T. Fasullo, R. S. Nerem, and B. HamlingtonJournal: Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/srep31245 Funders:  NASANational Science FoundationU.S. Department of Energy Collaborators: Univesity of Colorado Boulder (UCAR member)Old Dominion University (UCAR member)Writer:Laura Snider, Senior Science Writer and Public Information Officer

Expanding Antarctic sea ice linked to natural variability

BOULDER — The recent trend of increasing Antarctic sea ice extent — seemingly at odds with climate model projections — can largely be explained by a natural climate fluctuation, according to a new study led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The study offers evidence that the negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), which is characterized by cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific, has created favorable conditions for additional Antarctic sea ice growth since 2000. The findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, may resolve a longstanding mystery: Why is Antarctic sea ice expanding when climate change is causing the world to warm? The study's authors also suggest that sea ice may begin to shrink as the IPO switches to a positive phase. "The climate we experience during any given decade is some combination of naturally occurring variability and the planet's response to increasing greenhouse gases," said NCAR scientist Gerald Meehl, lead author of the study. "It's never all one or the other, but the combination, that is important to understand." Study co-authors include Julie Arblaster of NCAR and Monash University in Australia, Cecilia Bitz of the University of Washington, Christine Chung of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and NCAR scientist Haiyan Teng. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and by the National Science Foundation, which sponsors NCAR. On Sept. 19, 2014, the five-day average of Antarctic sea ice extent exceeded 20 million square kilometers (about 7.7 million square miles) for the first time since 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The red line shows the average maximum extent from 1979-2014. (Image courtesy NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr) Expanding ice The sea ice surrounding Antarctica has been slowly increasing in area since the satellite record began in 1979. But the rate of increase rose nearly five fold between 2000 and 2014, following the IPO transition to a negative phase in 1999. The new study finds that when the IPO changes phase, from positive to negative or vice versa, it touches off a chain reaction of climate impacts that may ultimately affect sea ice formation at the bottom of the world. When the IPO transitions to a negative phase, the sea surface temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific become somewhat cooler than average when measured over a decade or two. These sea surface temperatures, in turn, change tropical precipitation, which drives large-scale changes to the winds that extend all the way down to Antarctica. The ultimate impact is a deepening of a low-pressure system off the coast of Antarctica known as the Amundsen Sea Low. Winds generated on the western flank of this system blow sea ice northward, away from Antarctica, helping to enlarge the extent of sea ice coverage. “Compared to the Arctic, global warming causes only weak Antarctic sea ice loss, which is why the IPO can have such a striking effect in the Antarctic," said Bitz. "There is no comparable natural variability in the Arctic that competes with global warming.” Sifting through simulations To test if these IPO-related impacts were sufficient to cause the growth in sea ice extent observed between 2000 and 2014, the scientists first examined 262 climate simulations created by different modeling groups from around the world. When all of those simulations are averaged, the natural variability cancels itself out. For example, simulations with a positive IPO offset those with a negative IPO. What remains is the expected impact of human-caused climate change: a decline in Antarctic sea ice extent. But for this study, the scientists were not interested in the average. Instead, they wanted to find individual members that correctly characterized the natural variability between 2000-2014, including the negative phase of the IPO. The team discovered 10 simulations that met the criteria, and all of them showed an increase in Antarctic sea ice extent across all seasons. "When all the models are taken together, the natural variability is averaged out, leaving only the shrinking sea ice caused by global warming," Arblaster said. "But the model simulations that happen to sync up with the observed natural variability capture the expansion of the sea ice area. And we were able to trace these changes to the equatorial eastern Pacific in our model experiments." Scientists suspect that in 2014, the IPO began to change from negative to positive. That would indicate an upcoming period of warmer eastern Pacific Ocean surface temperatures on average, though year-to-year temperatures may go up or down, depending on El Niño/La Niña conditions. Accordingly, the trend of increasing Antarctic sea ice extent may also change in response. "As the IPO transitions to positive, the increase of Antarctic sea ice extent should slow and perhaps start to show signs of retreat when averaged over the next 10 years or so," Meehl said. About the article Title: Antarctic sea-ice expansion between 2000 and 2014 driven by tropical Pacific decadal climate variability Authors: Gerald A. Meehl, Julie M. Arblaster, Cecilia M. Bitz, Christine T. Y. Chung, and Haiyan Teng Publication: Nature Geoscience, DOI: 10.1038/NGEO2751 WriterLaura Snider, Senior Science Writer and Public Information Officer

Widespread loss of ocean oxygen to become noticeable in 2030s

BOULDER — A reduction in the amount of oxygen dissolved in the oceans due to climate change is already discernible in some parts of the world and should be evident across large regions of the oceans between 2030 and 2040, according to a new study led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Scientists know that a warming climate can be expected to gradually sap the ocean of oxygen, leaving fish, crabs, squid, sea stars, and other marine life struggling to breathe. But it's been difficult to determine whether this anticipated oxygen drain is already having a noticeable impact. "Loss of oxygen in the ocean is one of the serious side effects of a warming atmosphere, and a major threat to marine life," said NCAR scientist Matthew Long, lead author of the study. “Since oxygen concentrations in the ocean naturally vary depending on variations in winds and temperature at the surface, it's been challenging to attribute any deoxygenation to climate change. This new study tells us when we can expect the impact from climate change to overwhelm the natural variability." The study is published in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, NCAR's sponsor. Deoxgenation due to climate change is already detectable in some parts of the ocean. New research from NCAR finds that it will likely become widespread between 2030 and 2040. Other parts of the ocean, shown in gray, will not have detectable loss of oxygen due to climate change even by 2100. (Image courtesy Matthew Long, NCAR. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)   Cutting through the natural variability The entire ocean—from the depths to the shallows—gets its oxygen supply from the surface, either directly from the atmosphere or from phytoplankton, which release oxygen into the water through photosynthesis. Warming surface waters, however, absorb less oxygen. And in a double whammy, the oxygen that is absorbed has a more difficult time traveling deeper into the ocean. That's because as water heats up, it expands, becoming lighter than the water below it and less likely to sink. Thanks to natural warming and cooling, oxygen concentrations at the sea surface are constantly changing—and those changes can linger for years or even decades deeper in the ocean. For example, an exceptionally cold winter in the North Pacific would allow the ocean surface to soak up a large amount of oxygen. Thanks to the natural circulation pattern, that oxygen would then be carried deeper into the ocean interior, where it might still be detectable years later as it travels along its flow path. On the flip side, unusually hot weather could lead to natural "dead zones" in the ocean, where fish and other marine life cannot survive. To cut through this natural variability and investigate the impact of climate change, the research team—including Curtis Deutsch of the University of Washington and Taka Ito of Georgia Tech—relied on the NCAR-based Community Earth System Model, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy. The scientists used output from a project that ran the model more than two dozen times for the years 1920 to 2100 on the Yellowstone supercomputer, which is operated by NCAR. Each individual run was started with miniscule variations in air temperature. As the model runs progressed, those tiny differences grew and expanded, producing a set of climate simulations useful for studying questions about variability and change. Using the simulations to study dissolved oxygen gave the researchers guidance on how much concentrations may have varied naturally in the past. With this information, they could determine when ocean deoxygenation due to climate change is likely to become more severe than at any point in the modeled historic range. The research team found that deoxygenation caused by climate change could already be detected in the southern Indian Ocean and parts of the eastern tropical Pacific and Atlantic basins. They also determined that more widespread detection of deoxygenation caused by climate change would be possible between 2030 and 2040. However, in some parts of the ocean, including areas off the east coasts of Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia, deoxygenation caused by climate change was not evident even by 2100. Picking out a global pattern The researchers also created a visual way to distinguish between deoxygenation caused by natural processes and deoxygenation caused by climate change. Using the same model dataset, the scientists created maps of oxygen levels in the ocean, showing which waters were oxygen-rich at the same time that others were oxygen-poor. They found they could distinguish between oxygenation patterns caused by natural weather phenomena and the pattern caused by climate change.  The pattern caused by climate change also became evident in the model runs around 2030, adding confidence to the conclusion that widespread deoxygenation due to climate change will become detectable around that time. The maps could also be useful resources for deciding where to place instruments to monitor ocean oxygen levels in the future to get the best picture of climate change impacts. Currently ocean oxygen measurements are relatively sparse. "We need comprehensive and sustained observations of what's going on in the ocean to compare with what we're learning from our models and to understand the full impact of a changing climate," Long said. About the article Title: Finding forced trends in oceanic oxygenAuthors: Matthew C. Long, Curtis Deutsch,and Taka ItoJournal: Global Biogeochemical Cycles Writer:Laura Snider, Senior Science Writer and Public Information Officer

Ocean temps predict U.S. heat waves 50 days out, study finds

BOULDER — The formation of a distinct pattern of sea surface temperatures in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean can predict an increased chance of summertime heat waves in the eastern half of the United States up to 50 days in advance, according to a new study led by a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The pattern is a contrast of warmer-than-average water butting up against cooler-than-average seas. When it appears, the odds that extreme heat will strike during a particular week—or even on a particular day—can more than triple, depending on how well-formed the pattern is.The research is being published in the journal Nature Geoscience."Summertime heat waves are among the deadliest weather events, and they can have big impacts on farming, energy use, and other critical aspects of society," said Karen McKinnon, a postdoctoral researcher at NCAR and the lead author of the study. "If we can give city planners and farmers a heads up that extreme heat is on the way, we might be able to avoid some of the worst consequences."The research was largely funded by the National Science Foundation, NCAR's sponsor. In addition to McKinnon, the research team includes Andrew Rhines, of the University of Washington; Martin Tingley, of Pennsylvania State University; and Peter Huybers, of Harvard University.A fingerprint on the oceanFor the study, the scientists divided the country into regions that tend to experience extreme heat at the same time. The scientists then focused on the largest of the resulting blocks: a swath that stretches across much of the Midwest and up the East Coast, encompassing both important agricultural areas and heavily populated cities. Top: Sea surface temperature anomalies in the mid-latitude Pacific 50 days in advance of June 29, 2012. The pattern inside the green box resembled the Pacific Extreme Pattern, indicating that there would be an increase in the odds of a heat wave in the eastern half of the United States at the end of June. (Image courtesy of Karen McKinnon, NCAR. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)Bottom: June 29, 2012, was the hottest day of the year in the eastern United States. The hot temperatures in late June and early July were part of an extraordinarily hot summer that saw three heat waves strike the country. (Map courtesy of the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center.)The research team looked to see if there was a relationship between global sea surface temperature anomalies—waters that are warmer or cooler than average—and extreme heat in the eastern half of the U.S.Right away, a pattern popped out in the middle of the Pacific, above about 20 degrees North latitude. The scientists found that the particular configuration of ocean water temperatures, which they named the Pacific Extreme Pattern, was not only found when it was already hot in the eastern U.S., but that it tended to form in advance of that heat."Whatever mechanisms ultimately leads to the heat wave also leaves a fingerprint of sea surface temperature anomalies behind," McKinnon said.Improving seasonal forecastsTo test how well that fingerprint could predict future heat, the scientists used data collected from 1,613 weather stations across the eastern U.S. between 1982 and 2015, as well as daily sea surface temperatures for the same time period.The scientists defined extreme heat in the eastern U.S. as a summertime day when the temperature readings from the warmest 5 percent of weather stations in the region were at least 6.5 degrees Celsius (11.7 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than average. The scientists only looked at extreme heat during that region’s 60 hottest days of the year: June 24 through Aug. 22.The researchers "hindcasted" each year in the dataset to see if they could retrospectively predict extreme heat events—or lack of those events—during that year's summer, using only data collected during the other years as a guide.At 50 days out, the scientists were able to predict an increase in the odds—from about 1 in 6 to about 1 in 4—that a heat wave would strike somewhere in the eastern U.S. during a given week. At 30 days out or closer, the scientists were able to predict an increase in the odds—to better than 1 in 2 for a particularly well-formed pattern—that a heat wave would strike on a particular day.This new technique could improve existing seasonal forecasts, which do not focus on predicting daily extremes. Seasonal forecasts typically predict whether an entire summer is expected to be warmer than normal, normal, or cooler than normal.For example, the seasonal forecast issued for the summer of 2012 predicted normal heat for the Northeast and Midwest. But, the summer ended up being especially hot, thanks to three major heat waves that struck in late June, mid-July, and late July.When the science team used the Pacific Extreme Pattern to hindcast 2012, they were able to determine as early as mid-May that there were increased odds of extremely hot days occurring in late June. The hottest day of the summer of 2012, as measured by the technique used for this study, was June 29, when the warmest 5 percent of weather stations recorded temperatures that were 10.4 degrees Celsius (18.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above average."We found that we could go back as far as seven weeks and still predict an increase in the odds of future heat waves," McKinnon said. “What’s exciting about this is the potential for long-range predictions of individual heat waves that gives society far more notice than current forecasts.”Looking aheadScientists do not yet know why the fingerprint on sea surface temperatures in the Pacific predicts heat in the eastern U.S. It could be that the sea surface temperatures themselves kick off weather patterns that cause the heat. Or it could be that they are both different results of the same phenomenon, but one does not cause the other.To learn more about how the two are connected, McKinnon is working with colleagues at NCAR to use sophisticated computer models to try and tease apart what is really happening.The study's findings also point toward the possibility that the Pacific Extreme Pattern, or a different oceanic fingerprint, could be used to forecast other weather events far in advance, including cooler-than-average days and extreme rainfall events.“The results suggest that the state of the mid-latitude ocean may be a previously overlooked source of predictability for summer weather,” McKinnon said.About the articleTitle: Long-lead predictions of eastern United States hot days from Pacific sea surface temperaturesAuthors: Karen McKinnon, Andrew Rhines, Martin Tingley, and Peter HuybersJournal: Nature GeoscienceWriter:Laura Snider, senior science writer and public information officer

Flying lab to investigate Southern Ocean's appetite for carbon

BOULDER -- A team of scientists is launching a series of research flights this month over the remote Southern Ocean in an effort to better understand just how much carbon dioxide the icy waters are able to lock away. The ORCAS field campaign—led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)—will give scientists a rare look at how oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged between the air and the seas surrounding Antarctica. The data they collect will help illuminate the role the Southern Ocean plays in soaking up excess carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by humans. "If we want to better predict the temperature in 50 years, we have to know how much carbon dioxide the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems are going to take up," said NCAR scientist Britton Stephens, co-lead principal investigator for ORCAS. "Understanding the Southern Ocean's role is important because ocean circulation there provides a major opportunity for the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the vast reservoir of the deep ocean." ORCAS is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs. "Building on decades of U.S. Antarctic Program research, new questions of global significance continue to emerge," said Peter Milne, program director of Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences in the Division of Polar Programs. "ORCAS addresses one of those questions: how the Southern Ocean affects global climate by storing, or releasing, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and heat.” Carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas contributing to human-caused climate change, is continually transferred back and forth between the atmosphere, plants on land, and the oceans. As more carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels, oceans have stepped up the amount they absorb. But it's unclear whether oceans have the ability to keep pace with continued emissions. In the Southern Ocean, studies have disagreed about whether the ocean's ability to act as a carbon sink by taking up carbon dioxide is speeding up or slowing down. Measurements and air samples collected by ORCAS—which stands for the O2/N2 Ratio and CO2 Airborne Southern Ocean Study—will give scientists critical data to help clarify what's actually happening in the remote and difficult-to-study region. During the ORCAS campaign, the NSF/NCAR HIAPER research jet will study the air-sea exchange of gases over the Southern Ocean. Click image to enlarge. (Graphic by Alison Rockwell, NCAR. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.) Tracking carbon by air The ORCAS field campaign will operate out of Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of Chile. The researchers plan to use the NSF/NCAR HIAPER research aircraft to make 14 flights across parts of the Southern Ocean between Jan. 15 and Feb. 28. A suite of instruments on the modified Gulfstream V jet will measure the distribution of oxygen and carbon dioxide as well as other gases produced by marine microorganisms, plus aerosol and cloud characteristics in the atmosphere. The flights also will observe the ocean color—which can indicate how much and what type of phytoplankton is growing in the water—using NASA's Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM). The addition of the PRISM instrument to the ORCAS campaign was funded by NASA. The science campaign is being led by Stephens and NCAR scientist Matthew Long. Other principal investigators include Elliot Atlas (University of Miami), Michelle Gierach (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Ralph Keeling (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), Eric Kort (University of Michigan), and Colm Sweeney (Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences). CIRES is a partnership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado Boulder. The management of the field campaign is being handled by NCAR. Logistics include everything from obtaining diplomatic clearances from multiple countries to fly through their airspaces to providing housing and workspace for project scientists in South America. Carbon, oxygen, and phytoplankton Measuring oxygen alongside carbon dioxide can give scientists a clearer picture of the ocean processes affecting carbon dioxide than they would get from measuring carbon dioxide alone. "The air-sea exchange of carbon dioxide is controlled not just by physics but also by biology," Long said. "There's a nice relationship between the fluxes of oxygen and the fluxes of carbon dioxide that can be exploited to gain insight into these processes." Carbon dioxide in the ocean is drawn into a chain of chemical reactions that buffer the impact of biological and physical ocean processes on carbon dioxide in the overlying atmosphere. Oxygen air-sea fluxes, however, are more directly tied to these same biological and physical factors. So if scientists know what's going on with oxygen, they can better understand the processes affecting carbon dioxide as well. The Southern Ocean, which encircles Antarctica, is an especially important carbon sink. The ORCAS field campaign will help scientists better understand whether the Southern Ocean's ability to take up carbon is keeping pace with a continued increase in carbon dioxide emissions by humans. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.) Additionally, if scientists know how the concentrations of the two gases change relative to one another with location and time, they can disentangle how biology and physics separately affect the ocean's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Physics and biology affect the ratio of carbon dioxide to oxygen in the air in different ways. In the austral spring the warmth of the returning Sun drives both carbon dioxide and oxygen out of the Southern Ocean surface and into the atmosphere. But the sunlight also triggers the growth of phytoplankton in the water. As the organisms begin to flourish, they take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, causing the relative amounts of those two gases in the atmosphere to shift in opposite directions. Observations of these shifts can ultimately tell scientists how much carbon is going where and, more importantly, why. A window into the deep ocean The Southern Ocean is unique among Earth's oceans. Unimpeded by continental landmasses, and driven by a westerly wind, the Southern Ocean is able to form a circular current around Antarctica. This huge flow, the largest current on the planet, connects the adjacent Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. The complex interactions between this Antarctic Circumpolar Current and currents flowing in from other ocean basins creates an overturning circulation that brings deep water to the surface where it can exchange gases with the atmosphere before it is returned to depth. Once it dives toward the ocean floor, that surface water—and any carbon dioxide it takes with it—can stay sequestered in the deep ocean for hundreds or even thousands of years. Data collected by the ORCAS flights will help determine how much carbon dioxide goes along for the ride. "The Southern Ocean provides a window into the deep ocean, but it's a difficult system to simulate in our Earth system models," Long said. "It's remote, and so there has been a paucity of observations that can be used to improve the models we have." The data generated during the field campaign will be used by the ORCAS team to improve these global computer models so they do a better job representing the complexities of the Southern Ocean. The data set, which will be managed by NCAR, will be publicly available. While the measurements made during the ORCAS campaign will help scientists fine-tune what they know so far about the Southern Ocean, it's possible the project will also bring to light entirely new aspects of how the ocean works. "The Southern Ocean is very inaccessible, and existing measurements are from ships or surface stations that represent only a few tiny dots on a huge map," Stephens said. "The airborne measurements we take will be helpful in terms of understanding the system better. And because we're doing something that no one's ever done before, we're likely to find things that we aren't expecting." The NSF’s Division of Polar Programs manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, through which it funds researchers, coordinates all U.S. government research on the southernmost continent, and provides logistical support needed to make the science possible. WriterLaura Snider, Senior Science Writer and Public Information Officer

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