Sunday, April 25, 2010

An oceanic 'fast-lane' for climate change

Richard A. Love in Nature News: Work in Japan and Australia has revealed that a deep-ocean current is carrying frigid water rapidly northward from Antarctica along the edge of a giant underwater plateau.

Other research teams had previously identified a deep current along the eastern edge of the Kerguelen Plateau, a more than 2,200-kilometre-long rise some 3,000 kilometres south-west of Australia. But estimates of its speed, taken as "snapshots" by instruments deployed from research vessels, had been "all over the place", says Steve Rintoul, a physical oceanographer at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystem Cooperative Research Centre in Hobart, Australia, and a co-author of the new study.

Yasushi Fukamachi, an ocean scientist at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, led a team effort to determine the exact nature of the current. The researchers moored over 30 current and temperature recorders across its probable path and left these in place for two years. When they retrieved their instruments, the scientists discovered that the current, which flows at depths well below 3,000 metres, sometimes hit speeds greater than 700 metres per hour, carrying volumes as high as 30 million cubic metres per second. No other deep current in the Southern Hemisphere is known to move that quickly.

...This is significant because it represents a "fast lane" by which climatic and environmental changes affecting the Southern Ocean can propagate northward, says Alejandro Orsi, a physical oceanographer at Texas A & M University in College Station, who was not involved in the study. Proof that this is already occurring, he adds, can be seen from the fact that the deep waters near the Kerguelen Plateau already show "clear signs" of reduced salinity relating to changes in the rate of melting of Antarctic ice sheets….

Location of the Kerguelen Plateau, National Geophysical Data Center

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