Tag Archives: ocean

Rain in Maine to Blame for Altering Gulf's Food Web

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Changes in rainfall affect more than just land-based ecosystems. New research shows that increased rainfall in Maine led to the decline of ocean dwelling plant-like organisms called phytoplankton, which make up the base of the oceanic food web.

Researchers led by William Balch, of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, found that more rainfall translates into more river runoff flowing into the Gulf of Maine. The runoff, in turn, prevents phytoplankton from receiving the nutrients and light they need to thrive, researchers reported March 29 in Marine Ecology Progress Series. Read the study here, and Bigelow Laboratory’s story here.

“We demonstrated a massive, five-fold drop in primary production in this region — along with other big changes — associated with the record-breaking precipitation events that started in the mid-2000’s,” Balch said.

The researchers combined climate and river flow data with the results from a 12-year time series collected during the NASA-funded Gulf of Maine North Atlantic Time Series (GNATS) project. Between 1998 and 2010, GNATS documented changes in nutrient concentrations, phytoplankton biomass, and carbon fixation between Portland, Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia (see map, below).

“We combined climate data from over a century, river run-off data and the coastal time series to show how intimately the coastal ecosystem is connected to hydrological processes on land,” Balch said.

It remains to be seen how the shift in the base of the food web will trickle up to impact the Gulf of Maine’s fish, lobster, and the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which has been known to feed in the Gulf.

Text by Kathryn Hansen. Top image: William Balch collects temperature measurements from the Gulf of Maine. Credit: Globe Staff / Dina Rudick. For related images, check out The Boston Globe’s “Climate Change in the Ocean” gallery.

Bottom image: Data from NASA’s Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor shows areas in the Gulf of Maine that on May 11, 2002, exhibited the high chlorophyll concentrations (red and orange) that mark thriving phytoplankton populations. New research shows that increased rainfall and river runoff caused phytoplankton to decrease five-fold since the mid-2000s. Credit: NASA

See How a Stronger Arctic Oscillation Has Shifted the Flow of Russian Runoff

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An interesting new study published in Nature points out that an increase in the strength of the Arctic Oscillation between 2005 and 2008 caused winds in the region to grow more cyclonic and shift ocean currents in ways that drew more upper-surface freshwater from Russian rivers toward the Canada Basin and the Beaufort Sea. To see the shift in the animation above, look for the tightening of the wind patterns (shown in blue) over the Canada Basin that begins about 13 seconds into the video. Notice how the stream of less salty water from river runoff in Russia (shown in red) begins to loop westward toward Canada in sync with the circulation of the wind rather than continuing toward Greenland as it typically would. The purple arrows show the transpolar drift, a current that generally pushes water toward Greenland. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a press release with more details, and a number of news outlets have written stories about the study. In the image below, the altered path of the freshwater current is shown in red.

Listen to the Sound of a Ship's Hull Gouging Through First-Year Ice

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What on Earth was that grinding, thudding, scraping sound? No, it wasn’t astronauts clumping around on the Space Station, a washing machine in the midst of a cycle, or space dust hammering the Space Shuttle. It was actually the Coast Guard’s newest and most technologically advanced ice breaker — the Healy — barreling through thin, first-year ice in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska. (Multiyear ice tends to be less briny and have more air bubbles than first-year ice.) NASA science writer Kathryn Hansen is on board as part of the ICESCAPE mission, and she had this to say about the sound:

On July 7, I took a trip down into the bowels of the Healy’s bow to record the sound of the ship’s hull pummeling through thin, first-year ice (mp3 above). The rhythm and crescendos reminded me of the percussion section of an amateur orchestra.

Interestingly, icebreaking sounds completely different depending on your location in the ship. From outside on the ship’s deck you can hear the ice cracking and ocean water rushing in to fill the void. From inside in the science lounge, add the effect of vibrating bookshelves and the demise of items not properly secured.

These sounds (not to mention the earthquake-like movement) eventually blend into the background and sleep comes easily. The strange part will be returning home at the end of the month to a “quiet and still” life in the city.

By now you might be wondering, how much ice can the Healy break? Cruising at 3 knots, the ship is rated to break 4.5 feet of ice. By backing and ramming, the ship can break through 8 feet. Breaking thicker ice is possible but would take more time.

Hansen has also filed a few web videos about the expedition featuring interviews with ICESCAPE Project Scientist Kevin Arrigo and Karen Frey of Clark University that are worth checking out.

Aquarius Launches to Survey Earth's Salty Sea

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Joe Witte
filed this report from the media viewing site at Vandenberg Air Force Base shortly before the Aquarius satellite blasted successfully into space

More than a dozen reporters from Argentina are either standing or slowly moving about trying to stay warm while waiting for the launch of the Aquarius satellite. The low cloud deck over Vandenberg Air Force Base in California puts a damper on their spirits after traveling all the way from South America to see a Delta II rocket quickly disappear on it’s way to an orbit 400 miles above the earth.

Scientists from Argentina collaborated with NASA researchers to develop a highly specialized instrument to measure the amount of salt in the world’s oceans. It has taken nearly three decades of research and technical development to get to this point. Thirty years of work will disappear into the fog in a couple of seconds.

If all goes well after about 30 days of testing and calibrating, the satellite will be sending down valuable data on the salinity of the oceans.

The amount of salt in a parcel of water, along with the water’s temperature, determines the buoyancy of a parcel or body of water. For instance, along the southern east coast of the US the Gulf Stream becomes very salty because the tropical sun warms the ocean surface and produces evaporation from the ocean.Evaporation leaves salt behind in the ocean water at the surface leaving the Gulf Steam especially salty.

The salty water cools as the Gulf Stream flows into the northern areas off Canada with colder air temperatures. Cold temperatures and high salinity result in dense water, which slowly sinks into the depths of the northern Atlantic. This process is what drives the deep ocean circulation around the whole Earth. Since 70 percent of the planet is ocean the effects on climate are very significant. 

Over the coming years, climate scientists and oceanographers expect to make many new discoveries with Aquarius data.

Top image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls. Lower image credit: NASA/Joe Witte. Text by Joe Witte.

What to Expect from the Arctic

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Guest science writer KarenRomano Young reports from the ICESCAPEmission:

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, our chunky red-and-white icebreaker, sits at the gates of the Arctic Ocean. In the wee hours this morning, the sun set and quickly rose again, and a rainbow stretched up into low clouds. The ICESCAPE mission had reached station 5 of a seven-stop transect of the Bering Strait, between Fairway Rock — resembling Kong Island, but with pointy ears — and Little Diomede (U.S.) — something like the “Cliffs of Insanity” in The Princess Bride. Close by is Big Diomede (Russia), topped with fog.

Movie references aside, this is a dramatic spot in which to find yourself when you wake up in the morning — or in the evening, as is the case for the half of the science crew working the night shift to process the samples.

It seems that no matter how many times a scientist has been to sea, it doesn’t get old. Greg Mitchell (below right), a specialist in ocean optics from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, reckons he has spent about four years of his life aboard ships. His first trip to the Arctic was in 1987, his first year at Scripps. Mitchell’s research has taken him all over the world — to Antarctica and back again many times — but he hasn’t been inside the Arctic Circle since 1989. He expects change. Greg Mitchell

Observing the system…..and how it interacts with the edge of the sea ice…..and what’s going on with the ice melt…..and how it affects the ocean…..those principles won’t be any different than they were 20 years ago. “What we’re clearly seeing is that the sea ice is reducing more and more all the time,” said Mitchell. “This means less sunshine reflecting off the ice back into space, and more getting into the ocean.”

He expects the increase in sun-light on the sea to do three things:

  • “The light that’s not reflected will heat the ocean, accelerating the warming and accelerating the melting of the sea ice.”
  • “As the ocean warms it becomes more stratified. If you dive in a lake in the summertime, it’s warmer at the surface. But as you dive down, you feel the cold. That’s because the warm water is lighter than the cold water, and it stays at the surface. That’s thermal stratification. As you warm the ocean, it’ll stratify more and that will create a warm layer with a lot of light for algae to bloom (as long as they have nutrients).”
  • “More light in the ocean should cause more total photosynthesis in the Arctic, so we’ll lose habitat for polar bears but we’ll gain habitat for plankton.”

Like the rest of us, Mitchell is concerned about that. “I’m not saying it’s a good trade off. I think we should leave things alone. But the system’s changing, and as it changes we don’t know what the consequences of those changes will be. It’s hard to say what we could do. What we really need to do is to find a way for humans to have smaller footprint on earth. So we need to understand the processes better and then we need to model it.”

That’s why he’s here.

Mitchell, along with his group from Scripps, is involved in ground-truthing the optical properties of the Arctic Ocean (photos at the top and bottom of this post). That is, he’s helping to ensure that what they see at the surface squares up with the methods NASA satellites use to assess ocean color, an indicator of the level of chlorophyll and, by proxy, phytoplankton. NASA’s satellites measure the color of the ocean by flying over the earth and picking up blue, blue green, and green. If there’s not a lot of algae, the ocean is blue. If there is a lot of algae, the ocean is green.

But color is just one way of looking at phytoplankton levels. In order to truly assess the situation — for example how much carbon dioxide the phytoplankton are taking in – scientists need to assess the processes at work in the sea. “The optics don’t tell us this, so we have to take water samples, process the water, and then relate that to the optics we measure from the ship,” Mitchell said.

The global mapping you can see on the NASA site uses mathematical equations developed from the shipboard work. Satellite validation and calibration is based on the findings of scientists who go to sea and study the water to see what’s living there. Mitchell’s research group claims responsibility for about 20 percent of the global observations used by NASA for their models to convert satellite-measured optical measurements to chlorophyll estimates.

lowering gear from the Healy

The data contributes to models that allow prediction of primary production — the growth and health of organisms — under various conditions. Mitchell’s instruments include a small optical profiler — a fish-shaped instrument lowered from the Healy’s bow — and an optical package of instruments that measure water properties when it is lowered from the powerful A-frame at the stern.

“As ecologists, we don’t want to just know what color the ocean is,” he said. “We want to know how much plankton there is.” He walks to the edge of the ship and looks over the rail. “Now what we’re seeing out here is green water. There’s a lot of chlorophyll.” That means a strong pulse of phytoplankton, busy photosynthesizing the extra sunlight.

All photos shot by and courtesy of Karen Romano Young

Puzzling Over the Pieces

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Guest contributor Karen Romano Young (photo at right) blogs from NASA’s ICESCAPE expedition…

There’s a sign on the door of the room I share with Sharmila Pal and Emily Peacock. It’s a green square of plastic engraved with a picture of a polar bear and the words “SCIENCE – LATE SLEEPER.” So many of the scientists aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy for the ICESCAPE mission are awake through the night that the ship’s engraver, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Sean Lyons, has turned out a special  edition of late sleeper signs, complete with a rocket ship for NASA. Almost every door boasts a sleeper sign of one kind or another.

The reason? Aboard ICESCAPE, the science goes on 24 hours a day. We’re on a path to the far north, steaming from station to station through the night. Sometimes we’re in ice, sometimes we’re in open ocean, sometimes there’s a mix. Sometimes, there are walruses and seals. Each group of scientists has divided their schedule into shifts, so while some are catching their zzz’s behind those “late sleeper” signs, others are awake and overseeing operations, making measurements, and processing samples.

NASA’s Stanford Hooker takes the small boat out to measure light and take water samples, away from the interference of the ship. Karen Frey’s group from Clark University works on ice stations and takes Van Veen grabs in the open sea. (It’s like a giant pooper-scooper that scoops sediment from the ocean floor).

Bob Pickart of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution works to assess currents and other elements of physical oceanography, such as eddies and upwelling, as we pass through the ocean. James Swift, from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, oversees the CTD, a rosette of siphons and bottles triggered to sample water at various depths. (CTD stands for conductivity, temperature, and depth.) Greg Mitchell, Rick Reynolds, and their groups from Scripps measure the ocean’s optical properties with a small profiler dropped from the bow and with the Inherent Optical Properties (IOP) package of instruments deployed from the stern.

Sketch by Karen Romano Young

“We’re all working on different pieces of the same puzzle,” Reynolds says. “It’s impossible for one group to measure all we need to know. [Chief Scientist] Kevin Arrigo’s group is looking at core pigments, the plant pigments in the water column. Others are looking at chemical analyses of the nutrients in the water. It’s a big team effort. The ice people are working in a completely different environment, but there are algae in both places.”

The $250,000 IOP suite of instruments assesses the health of the ocean by analyzing the absorption and scattering of light by particles suspended in the water, including chlorophyll-rich algae; the quantity and quality of algae (the health and growth rate); and the presence of minerals and sediment. Each instrument on the IOP contributes to a picture of the makeup of the particles by assessing changes in light transmission.

“We start at the top,” says Reynolds (shown at left). “We look at what the NASAsatellite sees — the sea color — and parse out the differentcharacteristics of the water — how much algae, and what else is there,such as minerals from rivers, re-suspended sediment (mud stirred intothe water) and melting ice.” The resulting data will help thescientists develop new algorithms — equations for solving problems –to support the satellites.

NASA ice- and ocean-observing satellites, now working for more than ten years, are beginning to allow us to examine changes in the climate. One purpose of ICESCAPE is to look at the ocean with greater detail than the satellites offer, in order to improve and refine the interpretation of the satellite data. 

“We’re here because NASA wants to know what the satellites are seeing right here at the stations,” says Reynolds, “where nobody else may sample for decades, because the ocean is so vast.”

All imagery, including the IOP sketch, courtesy of Karen Romano Young 

Plankton on Parade

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This is the last of four dispatches from guest writer Karen Romano Young. She spent time on the ICESCAPE expedition

The hypothesis has been proved conclusively aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy: I can officially sleep through anything. Yesterday [June 26] we hit what chief scientist Kevin Arrigo calls the heavy ice, northwest of Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States. Almost immediately we spotted a polar (right) bear, but haven’t seen one since. You can’t blame them for staying away from the Healy as it slams its 16,000 tons — plus the combined weight of everyone who spent the day eating the chocolate croissants Emily Peacock baked — into the ice.

Early this morning, the ice scientists stood on the bridge and targeted a floe for an “ice station.” For nine hours, we tried to get to it. Slowly and steadily, the ship made a path, ramming, cracking, or backing and ramming again, and the chopped-up ice in our wake soon froze together behind us. Scientist Sam Laney wishes he had a computer application that would detect seismic disturbances, saying he has lived through earthquakes registering 5.5 on the Richter scale and the vibrations didn’t feel as strong as they do right now.

[Laney commented later: “I actually downloaded a program last night and took a few hours of measurements in the aft hose reel room. I am not a seismologist, of course, but I’m estimating between 4.3 and 4.9 on the Richter scale based on these crude measurements.” This is why I like to hang out with scientists. ]

You can see the ice on a map compiled from satellite data, but the reality of the sea ice is right here at sea level. It’s quite different thing to see it in a satellite image as opposed to falling over in the shower because your ship is tilting as it climbs a ridge of jammed-together ice floes and slides back down.

The sea ice measurements made by a dozen scientists on the ice for our station will help confirm details in the satellite maps, just as the work of those studying optics in the open sea will add to the sea color (chlorophyll) mapping that NASA does.

But there is an additional method of observing the Arctic Ocean that I’d like to tell you about because it has been so exciting to everyone here at ICESCAPE. You don’t have to interpret maps or charts of data. You just have to sit back, put your feet up, and check out Sam Laney’s pictures.

Sam’s images come from a stream of water coming up through a hose at Healy’s stern. All the microscopic organisms in the stream parade in front of a camera, sitting briefly for a snapshot before returning to the sea. The instrument, which is set up deep below in the aft hose reel room, is called the Imaging FlowCytobot (below right). It was developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Flow cytometry has long been used in medicine for counting cells — such as platelets – in blood samples as they are squirted past a laser. Oceanographers use flow cytometers to count the small cells that live in seawater, such as phytoplankton (photosynthetic microbes) and other small organisms. 

Imaging flow cytometry takes this approach one step further by triggering a camera every time a cell passes in front of the laser beam. Software on the imager immediately crops out the background from the picture to focus on the critter that was just photo-graphed. The revolutionary result is a steady flow of pictures of organisms as small as 2 microns living in seawater. It looks like a case of jewels: individual round-bodied gems, bigger broach-like diatoms chains (above right), and monster-like ciliates that prey on the smaller critters. 

In the past, scientists were able to gather steady flows of water and videotape the plankton at magnification. But managing this huge amount of data would have taken such incredible man-hours that it was impractical for use at sea. The Imaging FlowCytobot does it for us, snapping off a continuous stream of pictures — as many as ten thou-sand cells in a volume of seawater no bigger than a AA battery

Laney’s sea-going imager is an outgrowth of an underwater Imaging FlowCytobot that his collaborators Heidi Sosik and Rob Olson have operated for several years at the Martha’ Vineyard Coastal Observatory off Massachusetts. ICESCAPE is the first time the instrument has been used at sea to survey broad regions of the ocean.

“We are seeing what’s in the water immediately, not after the fact in a lab,” Laney explained, “so it’s obvious when the water — and what’s in it — changes. In the images taken north of Dutch Harbor, there weren’t many cells out there because it’s the open ocean. But in the Bering Strait, the jewels were much more elaborate because we were closer to shore. A large diatom chain indicates an ecosystem that has a lot of nutrients and is highly productive.”

Laney, Sosik, and Olson hope to see Imaging FlowCytobots placed aboard long-term, deep-ocean moorings in the open sea, such as those that will be deployed as part of the Ocean Observing System.

Of course, some of the fun is just seeing the plankton in action. Sometimes you can simply tell that they’re ailing or dying. In one memorable stretch of sea, off Point Lay, the Cytobot caught a stream of diatoms in the act of dividing and reproducing. Then there are the horror shots, in which a ciliate stretches its cilia toward a hapless phytoplankton.

Imagery courtesy of Karen Romano Young. The polar bear was photographed by Gert van Dijken. 

Working (Very) Remotely

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If you are trying to view this post on Internet Explorer, please use Firefox or Safari instead. We are experiencing a technical problem with the slideshow on Internet Explorer. You can also view the slideshow on Flickr.

Bryan Fabbri, Fred Denn, and Bob Arduini typically drive to their jobs at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. But then there are a few days each month when they take the helicopter instead.

The three scientists are part of the small, hands-on team that maintains a suite of meteorological and climate-observing instruments on the Chesapeake Light, a platform lighthouse 15 miles off the Virginia coast in the Atlantic Ocean.

The instruments record air and sea surface temperature, the amount of sunlight and heat absorbed and reflected by the ocean surface, wind speed, aerosol composition, and on and on. The measurements are made to validate the observations made by the Langley-managed Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES).

The CERES satellite instruments have been operating for more than a decade, creating a long-term record of a key driver of Earth’s climate – the balance of incoming and outgoing solar radiation known as the “energy budget.” And the instruments that Fabbri, Denn and Arduini maintain on Chesapeake Light serve to validate the observations CERES makes over the oceans. The project is called COVE (CERES Ocean Validation Experiment) and began along with CERES more than a decade ago.

In a job that usually demands a lot of time crunching data in front of a computer screen, the regular trips to the lighthouse offer a chance for something different. They also highlight a side of science that isn’t often discussed: the grunt work of making sure your instruments are working properly…or haven’t corroded in the humid salt-air…or haven’t blown off the platform with an open-ocean gust. If the sensors aren’t working properly, CERES observations over the ocean would be much more difficult to validate.

It doesn’t hurt that this important work means getting out in the middle of the ocean every now and then.

“You can’t beat that part of it,” Fabbri said. “I get a little stir crazy. I like getting out of the office and out there to work on the instruments. It doesn’t hurt to take the helicopter out.”

— By Patrick Lynch, NASA’s Langley Research Center

Are the Oceans Really Stuffed to the Gills with Carbon Dioxide?

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Two months ago, NASA’s Timothy Hall and colleagues published a study that described how they had estimated the amount of manmade carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean since the start of the industrial era.

Oceans absorb about a third of the carbon dioxide that humans release into the atmosphere, so sorting out a long-term record of carbon uptake is of great interest to climate scientists.

To create their record of the ocean’s uptake of carbon, Hall and Samar Khatiwala, the lead author of the study, devised a clever mathematical technique that proved to be a considerable advance. When Hall’s study appeared in the journal Nature, he assumed the creation of this new long-term, continuous record would headline the news.

But journalists gravitated toward something else entirely: a brief mention that the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean seemed to be experiencing, as the researchers put it, “a small decline in the rate of increase in the last few decades.”

“Seas Grow Less Effective at Absorbing Emissions”, one headline trumpeted. Another article compared the world’s oceans to a fish “stuffed to the gills” with carbon dioxide and another reported a “sudden and dramatic drop in the amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the sea.

Given the caveats included in the original study, all of this caught Hall slightly off guard. I’ll let Hall, who summarized his reactions to the coverage for What On Earth, pick the story up from here:

My coauthors and I had viewed the ability to estimate the history of ocean uptake of anthropogenic carbon as the highlight of the paper. Previously, observationally-based estimates had only provided a few snapshots in time, and we were proud of the cleverness of our techniques.

It seems clever mathematical techniques, however, don’t make good press releases. Interestingly, coverage of the paper has not focused on the fact that we can estimate the uptake history. Instead it has focused on apparent reductions in the rate of uptake over the last 2 decades.

The figure below shows our estimate of ocean uptake since 1775. The first impression is the rapid increase since 1950, coinciding with the rapid rise in carbon emissions to the atmosphere. The oceans have prevented about 1/3 of anthropogenic carbon emissions from accumulating in the atmosphere. A closer reading of the curve reveals a reduction in the uptake’s rate of increase after about 1980, even while emissions continue to increase.

Scientists have long suspected that ocean carbon uptake would eventually be unable to keep pace with rising emissions. Basic aqueous chemistry tells us that, as dissolved carbon in seawater increases, seawater becomes less able to absorb new carbon. Eventually, the absorption saturates. The slowing down of the increase rate may be an early signal of this saturation.

However, recent changes in uptake were not our focus when we performed the study, and more importantly we did not analyze the statistical significance of the slowdown. We plan further analysis on these trend variations. What we can say is that there are physical reasons to suspect a reduction in the ocean’s capacity to keep pace with increasing carbon emissions, and that there are now strong observational hints for recent reductions.

Hall advises reading this story, which also appeared in Nature. It’s less dramatic and more technical than most of media accounts, but it is a more accurate representation of the paper.

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team
   Image Credit: (EPOD/K. Chrisodoulopoulus)

Sea level isn't really level at all

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Our friends at NASA’s Global Climate Change site have a great blog post today that we’d like to share. The message is simple yet critical: rising sea levels do not and will not mean the same thing everywhere on the planet. Oceanographer Josh Willis of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory puts it this way:

Even though it’s sometimes convenient to think of the ocean as a great big bathtub, where turning on the tap at one end raises the water level in the whole tub, real sea level rise doesn’t quite happen that way. To understand why, you first have to realize that ‘sea level’ isn’t really level at all.

There are lots of reasons why the oceans are not level. For example, vast ocean currents like the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean and the Kuroshio in the Pacific actually reshape the ocean surface, causing it to tilt. As the planet heats up, changes in the prevailing winds (which drive most of these ocean currents) cause changes in the currents, reshaping our ocean and changing local sea level as a result.

Just as global warming does not raise land temperatures evenly, global ocean warming is not the same everywhere around the globe. Some regions of the oceans are heating up faster than others, and because warm water takes up more space than cold water, those regions experience faster sea level rise.

Finally, the water locked away in the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica also shapes the ocean surface. As the ice sheets melt and lose water to the oceans, our entire planet feels the effects. The movement of mass from the ice sheets to the oceans very slightly shifts the direction of Earth’s rotation. This, along with changes in the gravitational pull of the ice sheets on the oceans, will reshape sea levels further still…

Click here to read the full posting from Josh. And be sure to check out the interactive sea level rise viewer. 

— Mike Carlowicz, Earth Science News Team

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