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Chris Baish

Recent Climate Change


10/6/2015
Freshwater Forcing in the Southern Ocean
Introduction
There is compelling evidence that increased Antarctic ice-shelf melting
may be the major component of recent trends in Southern Ocean temperature
and salinity, both at the surface and at the bottom layers (Bintanja. 2015;
Chacko. 2015; Jullion et al. 2013; Lavergne. 2014; Ma and Wu. 2011; Morrison
et al. 2015). For the purpose of this research paper, I will discuss the latest
scientific thinking on how these changes are affecting systems in the region, as
well as the potential global impacts we could reasonably expect to see in the
near future if freshening continues to increase.
Melting Ice-Shelf
The increase in Antarctic ice-shelf melting is caused by the recent trends
in radiative forcing (Morrison et al. 2015). Ice-shelf melting occurs both above the
ocean surface, as well as beneath it. Melting that occurs beneath the surface is
known as basal melting. During this process, inflowing warm deep ocean water
melts glaciers from the base. The increasing rate of fresh melt water entering the
Southern Ocean appears to enhance stratification (stabilization of the water
column), triggering a series of critical changes in its mechanisms, which
consequently, seem to even further increase freshening as a result (Chacko.
215; Jullion et al. 2013; Lavergne. 2014; Ma and Wu. 2011; Morrison et al. 2015).

Short-Term Effects
The most immediate effects of this freshwater increase are seen at the
ocean surface. Observational data shows the recent decrease in temperature
and salinity at the surface is linked increasing freshwater flux from the melting
ice-shelf

(Morrison et al. 2015). A recent theory suggests that this surface

cooling is the driving factor for sea ice expansion, due to the cooler surface
temperatures acting like an insulator from warmer waters below (Bintanja. 2015).
This theory was recently tested in a climate simulation, the results were

published

earlier

this

year

in the

International Glaciological Society's

peer-reviewed journal, Annals of Glaciology, and showed that we can expect to


see sea ice expansion even at the most extreme warming conditions due to the
substantial amount of fresh, cold melt water from the ice-shelf that would perturb
the surface temperature (Bintanja. 2015). Sea ice expansion is believed to be
linked to the increase in positive phases of the Southern Annular Mode (SAM),
which drives strong circumpolar winds to lower latitudes, further enhancing sea
ice, which further adds to surface cooling (Chacko. 2015). Surface cooling
ultimately poses a serious problem for Southern Ocean mechanisms.
Long-Term Effects
We are recently, for the first time, also beginning to see what effects this
freshwater forcing is having on the deep layers of the Southern Ocean. As
mentioned previously, freshening is believed to enhance ocean stratification.
Under these conditions, the rate of upward heat transfer is reduced (Morrison et

al. 2015) due to freshwater at the surface not being as dense as salt water, and
therefore not sinking through to the deep layers of the ocean. This decrease in
upward heat transfer slows the creation of Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW),
which scientists believe to be one of the driving forces of ocean circulation (Ma
and Wu. 2011). Observational data correlates with this idea, showing AABW has
indeed been shrinking in recent decades (Chacko. 2015; Jullion et al. 2013). This
potentially poses a serious threat to Earth's climate because ocean circulation is
the major mechanism contributing to the transport and storage of heat and
carbon. These warmer than normal deep ocean waters cause basal ice-shelf
melting to occur at an accelerated rate, further increasing the freshening in lower
ocean layers (Chacko. 2015). This freshening of AABW is believed to directly
cause the weakening of ocean circulation (Lavergne. 2014). A pair of scientists
from China recently tested a circulation model, the results were published in
2011 in the American Meteorological Society's peer-reviewed journal, Journal of
Climate, and suggests that freshening of the Southern Ocean could spread
globally within several decades, significantly changing the balance between
AABW and North Atlantic Bottom Water (NABW) (Ma and Wu. 2011). This could
potentially lead to a shift in circulation locations altogether in the future (Morrison
et al. 2015).
Conclusion
It is clear that the increased freshwater flux we are seeing around
Antarctica is having very complicated effects on Southern Ocean systems. Most

importantly, enhanced ocean stratification is believed to have led to the recent


observed decrease in deep ocean circulation (Lavergne. 2014). Current global
climate models suggest that circulation will continue to weaken and eventually
cease altogether under increasing freshening conditions (Chacko. 2015). This
situation has the potential for devastating effects; where we could see much less
uptake of anthropogenic heat and carbon dioxide by the ocean, resulting in a
positive feedback loop for global climate change (Jullion et al. 2013; Lavergne.
2014).

References
Bintanja, R., G.J. van Oldenborgh, and C.A. Katsman. "The effect of increased
fresh water from Antarctic ice shelves on future trends in Antarctic sea ice."
Annals of Glaciology 56 (2015): 69.
Chacko, R., N. Anilkumar, P. Sabu, and J.V. George. "Freshening of Antarctic
Bottom Water in the Indian Ocean sector of Southern Ocean." Deep-Sea
Research 2 (2015): 118.
Jullion, L., and A.C. Naveira Garabato. "Decadal Freshening of the Antarctic
Bottom Water Exported from the Weddell Sea." Journal of Climate 26 (2013): 20.
Lavergne, C. J.B. Palter, E.D. Galbraith, R. Bernardello, and I. Marinov.
Cessation of deep convection in the open Southern Ocean under anthropogenic
climate change. Nature (2014).
Ma, H., and Wu, L. Global Teleconnections in Response to Freshening over the
Antarctic Ocean. Journal of Climate 24 (2011): 4.
Morrison, A., M. England, and A. Hogg. Response of Southern Ocean
Convection and Abyssal Overturning to Surface Buoyancy Perturbations.
Journal of Climate 28 (2015): 10.

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