The Ocean Talks to Those Who Listen

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A new finding documented by the Center for Research on the Changing Earth System (CRCES) in a study funded by the NASA-Ocean Physics Program indicates world climate can be affected by the “Indo-Pacific Warm Pool,” a pool of water located in the eastern Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean, due to large variations in precipitation and evaporation that affect ocean salinity and temperature which, in turn, affects climate.

From the beginning of time, the ocean has always intrigued humankind. It has given birth to life, inspired music, stimulated the creativity of artists and photographers, prompted sailors to bring home stories of monsters from its depths, and affected people's senses. The list goes on. But did you know the ocean can talk? The ocean speaks to us in many ways and, most recently, has revealed a hidden secret to researchers about the water cycle and how it can affect climate variability -- a new finding documented by the Center for Research on the Changing Earth System (CRCES) in a study funded by the NASA-Ocean Physics Program.

Ultimately, the global water cycle is central to life on the Earth. Most of us can recall, as early as grade school, our teachers showing us drawings of the water cycle. We would follow the arrows on the diagrams not realizing the significance -- the sun heats the water and turns it into vapor. This vapor then goes up into the sky where it cools off and condenses back into liquid, forming clouds and precipitation. After that the water soaks into the land as groundwater or runs over the soil and collects in water bodies, some of which drain into the ocean. The ocean, which is the storehouse of the world's water, is merely one part of the water cycle. It is as simple as that — or so it was thought.

Recently, the ocean revealed another very important role that affects the water cycle and climate variability around the world. CRCES scientists have unlocked a hidden mystery of the ocean. No, they did not discover Atlantis, sea monsters, or mermaids. Rather CRCES researchers have discovered something immensely more important; they have produced ground breaking results by using satellite data and a mathematical-computer model of the world's oceans.

Specifically, their research has shown that the amount of precipitation falling into the oceans and the evaporation rate of ocean water, affects the amount of dissolved salt (salinity) in the water. Water with more salinity is heavier than water with less salinity. And these salinity differences affect the direction and strength of ocean currents. Salinity also affects ocean temperature. Some areas may have more precipitation than evaporation which causes less salinity in the water. In other areas, salinity is increased because of less precipitation than evaporation. The combination of salinity and temperature of the water play an important role in climate variability. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the “Indo-Pacific Warm Pool” which is located in the eastern Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean (see http://www.crces.org for a movie of the Warm Pool), where the surface water is some of the warmest and freshest on the Earth. For the first time, CRCES researchers have verified through ship-based observations of salinity and a mathematical-computer model of the world oceans that changes in precipitation and evaporation in this part of the world directly affect ocean salinity and temperature, influencing climate.

Consequently, the research on the Warm Pool is producing exciting results and a greater understanding of how ocean-atmosphere interaction in this area affects worldwide climate. Understanding the physics of the Warm Pool is vitally important because this research may increase predictability of floods and droughts. Indeed, the ocean is talking, and it is up to us to listen; it can help us in improving our lives!

For further information, please refer to the following journal articles at http://www.crces.org:

  • “The Response of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to Interannual Variations in Net Atmospheric Freshwater,” by Boyin Huang and Vikram Mehta, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Oceans in April 2005.
  • “Response of the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool to Interannual Variations in Net Atmospheric Freshwater,” by Boyin Huang and Vikram Mehta, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, June 2004.
  • “Oceanic Response to Idealized Net Atmospheric Freshwater in the Pacific at the Decadal Timescale,” by Boyin Huang, Vikram Mehta, and Niklas Schneider, published in the Journal of Physical Oceanography, TBD 2005.

About The Center for Research on the Changing Earth System (CRCES):

CRES is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization located in Columbia, Maryland. Since its inception in 2002, CRCES’s mission is towards an integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in the science of slow variability within the Earth System components and in societal adaptation to this slow variability necessary for socio-economic and political stability of the global society in the 21st century. More information about CRCES’s research is available at http://www.crces.org.

Science queries:

Dr. Vikam Mehta, Executive Director

The Center for Research on the Changing Earth System (CRCES)

410-992-5300, x14

http://www.crces.org

General queries:

Ms. Janet Wood, Chief Administrative Officer

The Center for Research on the Changing Earth System (CRCES)

410-992-5300, x13

http://www.crces.org

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