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Using Oceanography to Predict Climate Change

written by: R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 12/6/2010

Charles Greene and colleagues weigh in on how oceanography can be used to predict climate change.

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    Oceanography & Climate

    The use of oceanographic data is currently being used in an attempt to predict future climate changes. Ecologists and oceanographers are using this data to reconstruct the past Arctic climate patterns as well as ocean circulation. The journal Ecology states, “a group of scientists report that if current patterns of change in the Arctic and North Atlantic Oceans continue, alternations of ocean circulation could occur on a global scale, with potentially dramatic implications for the world's climate and biosphere".

    Recognizing Patterns

    Through a reconstructive experiment, Charles Greene along with several colleagues, were able to see the patterns of climate change over 65 million years, from the Paleocene epoch until now in the Arctic. Charles Greene states, “the Earth has undergone several major warming and cooling episodes, which were largely mitigated by the expansion and contraction of sea ice in the Arctic".

    When the Arctic cools the ice increases in turn causing the sun to reflect off of the ice. According to Charles Greene, “when more of the sun is reflected rather than absorbed, this leads to global cooling." On the other hand, when ice decreases the darker ocean surface or land is exposed leading to heat being absorbed; this leads to the climate rising. As of today the Earth is in a state of warming.

    Charles Greene states, “the changes in shelf ecosystems between 1980's and 1990's were remarkable". He goes on to say, “now we have a much better idea about the role climate had in this regime shift".

    The patterns and changes that were seen throughout recent decades only offers a glimpse. As the global ocean's deep circulation slows, less heat will go to higher latitudes. This will in turn speed up the formation of ice and will move the Earth into glacial conditions.

    During the 21st century, NADW formation in the Arctic probably will be resilient to freshwater pulses. This could in turn disrupt the global ocean circulation throughout the following century and turn into sudden changes in the climate.

    Charles Greene said, “if the Earth's deep ocean circulation were to be shut down, many of the atmospheric, glacial and oceanic processes that have been stable in recent times would change, and the change would likely be abrupt." Greene goes on to say, “while the ecosystem consequences of gradual changes in the ocean are somewhat predictable, all bets are off after such abrupt changes occur".